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Americans Are Mistaken About Who Gets Welfare

WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress may soon embark on a racially-fraught policy battle over “welfare.”

“We can lift our citizens from welfare, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity,” Trump said in his State of the Union address last week, the latest signal that Republicans want “welfare reform” this year.

Trump has often pandered to racists among his supporters. He said Mexico sends “rapists” to the United States and that there were some “fine people” among the neo-Nazis who staged a deadly protest last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. When the president said Mexican heritage made it impossible for a judge to be fair, House Speaker Paul Ryan called it the “textbook definition” of racist.

The word “welfare” is different. It’s a standard political term that Democrats, Republicans and journalists alike use ― though Republicans use it the most often. There’s nothing overtly racialized about welfare. You can even find it in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

And yet, the word is often loaded with racial meaning. As a new HuffPost/YouGov survey shows, much of the public has a distorted view of which groups receive the bulk of assistance from government programs. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say either that most welfare recipients are black, or that welfare recipiency is about the same among black and white people.


The numbers reflect a significant overestimation of the number of black Americans benefiting from the largest programs. Medicaid had more than 70 million beneficiaries in 2016, of whom 43 percent were white, 18 percent black, and 30 percent Hispanic. Of 43 million food stamp recipients that year, 36.2 percent were white, 25.6 percent black, 17.2 percent Hispanic and 15.5 percent unknown. (Food stamps are formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)

In one sense, HuffPost’s survey asked an abstract question: The federal government doesn’t run a program that is actually called “welfare.” The word can describe any instance of the government helping people or businesses, though it’s most commonly used to describe programs that benefit the poor.

These days, to Republican lawmakers, welfare means Medicaid, food stamps and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Paul Ryan and hardline conservatives in the House of Representatives have said they want to make changes to those three programs this year under the banner of welfare reform.

Historically, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is probably the program that has most frequently been called welfare, as it was created in the famous “welfare reform” of 1996. As a result of that reform, the program today is much smaller than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and it only served 2.7 million people in 2016. Of those, 36.9 percent were Hispanic, 27.6 percent white, and 29.1 percent black ― meaning that if they had this particular program in mind, HuffPost’s survey respondents who said the number of white and black beneficiaries are “about the same” were basically right.

Survey respondents’ estimation of who receives welfare tracked closely to their estimation of who gets food stamps. Nearly two-thirds of poll respondents said the program’s recipients are mostly black or that there are as many black Americans as white Americans receiving benefits. Only 21 percent correctly said there are more white than black food stamp recipients.

“Across the programs people overestimate the share of recipients who are black,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy. “It’s not surprising because we all know people’s images of public benefits is driven by stereotype.”

Trump himself harbors mistaken views of who receives welfare benefits, according to reporting by NBC News. During a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus last March, one member of Congress told Trump that welfare cuts, which the president had proposed in his budget, would harm her constituents, specifying that not all of them were black.

According to NBC News, Trump said, “Really? Then what are they?”

Trump supporters are also more likely than Clinton voters to overestimate the share of welfare and public housing benefits that go to black recipients.

The perceptions of who benefits from programs may affect the favorability of the programs themselves. White Americans are more likely to support “assistance to the poor” than “welfare,” one 2014 study found. And other polling has shown that whites are 30 points likelier to agree that “average Americans have gotten less than they deserve” than they are to say the same about black Americans.

Last year, House Republicans and Trump signaled they wanted reforms to food stamps, specifically increased “work requirements” that would deny benefits to the sliver of SNAP and Medicaid recipients who are able bodied but don’t have jobs. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested he didn’t have much interest in pursuing major changes to safety net programs.

Even without McConnell’s support for a full-fledged reform of food stamps, Congress will definitely have to consider the $70 billion program later this year because it needs to be reauthorized.

Last week, Trump and Ryan talked about “workforce development,” in what might be a new euphemism for Ryan’s longstanding goal of shrinking the federal safety net. Ryan reportedly told fellow Republicans at a GOP retreat in West Virginia last week that workforce development means “getting people the skills and opportunity to get into the workforce.”

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Jan. 17-18 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn moreabout this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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