Why Americans hate welfare

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Gilens, Martin. Why Americans hate welfare : race, media, and the politics of antipoverty policy. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1999. xii, 296 p. ; 24 cm.


In his book Why Americans hate welfare : race, media, and the politics of antipoverty policy, author Martin Gilens examines the socially charged issue of welfare, and why so many Americans resist the concept and execution of welfare policies.

Gilens traces the roots of resistance to welfare to the American tradition of self-reliance. In his argument this tradition comes from generations of Americans who tamed a continent and built a robust economy by working hard and relying on themselves. To a person of self reliance, the idea of accepting a hand-out goes against the social and economic grain of American tradition.

But as Gilens puts it, the American character is far more complex than that. As he tells us, most Americans do not object to the idea of charity for those who need it, nor do they object to the use of public monies for it. This is particularly true when that charity is directed towards the elderly, children and the disabled. So where does the resistance come from? Gilens's one word answer is: Race.

Using tools that range from hard statistical analysis to interpretation of media coverage, Gilens illustrates a series of 'welfare stereotypes' that have colored perceptions of the Institution of social welfare: 1. Most people who are on welfare are black/Latino. 2. Many black welfare mothers bear children just to boost their welfare grant. 3. Blacks on welfare are lazy and would prefer welfare dollars to earned wages. 4. The children of black people on welfare would in all likelihood be on welfare themselves.

These concepts, led Americans to conclude that black on welfare were abusing the system and the charitable spirit which had made welfare possible. This gave rise to a wave of conservative welfare reform which narrowed the definition and degree of public assistance. .

But as Gilens informs us, these are only perceptions, not facts; and he painstakingly shatters them one at a time; by relating how they were initially formed. Gilens places particular importance on photographs of blacks in newspaper and magazines, and what sort of social position those photos suggested.


The early chapters of Gilens book are loaded with tables of statistical data that support his conclusions and interpretations. These passages represent the strongest component of his work, and the places where his arguments are strongest.

The problems start in chapter 7, where Gilens tries to link current stereotypes about the laziness of blacks on welfare to slavery. The argument is a painful incident of historical presents, which stops the book dead in its tracks.

It is a disruption from which the work never recovers. In chapter 8 & 9 Gilens bombards his readers with long passages of editorial comment on why America hasn't done more for the poor. The contents of these pages Is not unpleasant reading, but the message reflects a strong bias on the part of the author to a liberal agenda. This condition leads the work away from objectivity and towards dogma.

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