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Though White Americans Benefit Most From Social Safety Net, Study Shows How Racial Resentment Can Fuel Welfare Opposition

"Whites' perceptions that minorities' standing is rising can produce periods of 'welfare backlash' in which adoption of policies restricting or curtailing welfare programs is more likely," warns researcher

A woman sorts through tokens used by the poor on public food assistance programs to buy fresh food at the Hattie Carthan Community Market in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Mistaken beliefs about who benefits most from the social safety net has led white Americans to oppose programs like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), and other government assistance initiatives in greater numbers—and could trigger the further weakening of such programs, according to a new study.

In a study titled "Privilege on the Precipice," published in the journal Social Forces, researchers at Stanford University and UC Berkeley reported that across the political spectrum and socioeconomic statuses, white opposition to social welfare programs has risen sharply since 2008.

A major correlation to this opposition was the incorrect belief that minorities use Medicaid, SNAP benefits, and other programs more than white Americans. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Department of Agriculture, 43 percent of Medicaid recipients and more than 36 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are white—by far the largest percentage in terms of racial demographics.

"My main hope here is that people take a step back, look at what these sorts of programs do for the poor, and think about what's driving opposition to them," Rachel Wetts, a sociology researcher at UC Berkeley, told the Washington Post.


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Wetts and Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer analyzed white Americans' attitudes regarding the social safety net beginning in 2008 and found that over the same time period, racial resentment among whites also rose. As Caitlin Dewey at the Post wrote:

To determine if there was a connection, Wetts and Willer designed two more experiments: one in which they quizzed respondents on their feelings about welfare after seeing a graph about U.S. demographic change, and another in which respondents took a similar quiz after viewing information on average income by race and the demographics of welfare beneficiaries.

In both instances, opposition to the social safety net overall went up among the respondents.

While the concerns of some white voters over changing demographics have been tied to President Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election, and could impact upcoming policymaking, according to the Post, as the House prepares to vote on work requirements for SNAP recipients and a plan to cut the program by $9 million. Several states have already received federal approval for such stipulations for Medicaid.

"Whites' perceptions that minorities' standing is rising can produce periods of 'welfare backlash' in which adoption of policies restricting or curtailing welfare programs is more likely," wrote Wetts and Willer.

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