After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you'll ever see, accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you're not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them. A GOP presidential campaign that doesn't eventually bust out this attack would be like a wedding band that doesn't know how to play "Y.M.C.A."
But since there hasn't been much debate about welfare in some time, it's a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what the program is and isn't, and what role it plays in America today. Needless to say, you won't get this information from a campaign ad.
What we call "welfare" today has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which provided aid for states to give assistance to a number of classes of Americans, including the elderly, the blind, and the unemployed. The Act provided money for monthly payments to poor children where at least one parent was absent or unable to work. In practice, this meant that the vast majority of aid went to widows and single mothers. The program gradually expanded to all 50 states and in the early 1960s became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Then in 1996, the Republican Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which fundamentally altered the nature of welfare. The name of the program was changed to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), with the accent on "temporary." The new program would have a five year lifetime limit on cash benefits and require that recipients be working or in a job-training program. Critically, it ended welfare as an "entitlement," meaning that states were no longer required to accept any applicant who met the program's qualifications. Instead, the money goes to states as a "block grant," with the state deciding how many people it will serve and how many it will turn away. The number of people on the rolls immediately began to decline. In 1996, according to the census, there were 4.4 million families receiving welfare; in 2008, it was only 1.6 million.
And when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the states began turning away people in droves; even as millions of Americans fell into poverty, the welfare rolls didn't increase, meaning that a smaller and smaller portion of America's poor families are getting cash assistance from the government.
For Republicans, this is a feature, not a bug; they hope to convert food stamps and Medicaid to block grants as well.
Because TANF is a federal/state program and each state sets its own eligibility standards, benefits vary widely. As you might expect, benefits in Southern states run by Republicans are far more meager than those in Northern and Western states where Democrats govern. In 2011, benefits ranged from a low of $170 a month for a single-parent family of three in Mississippi to a high of $753 for the same family living in New York. TANF spending was set at $16.5 billion per year in the 1996 bill, where it has remained—without any adjustment for inflation—ever since.
So who gets welfare? This is where the race issue enters. Contrary to popular perception, the recipients of TANF are about equally divided between whites, blacks and Hispanics. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009 the TANF rolls were 31.2 percent white, 33.3 percent black, and 28.8 percent Hispanic. Yet the primary image of a "welfare recipient" in most people's mind is a black woman. This has been demonstrated in study after study by political scientists, psychologists, and communication scholars. Most Americans not only drastically overestimate the proportion of welfare recipients who are black, they also tend to believe that welfare makes up a huge proportion of the federal budget, when in fact it accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. As Donald Kinder and Cindy Ham wrote in Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, "means-tested programs like AFDC and food stamps are understood by whites to largely benefit shiftless black people." The racialization in perceptions of welfare is reinforced by the news media, which usually use images of black people to illustrate stories about welfare and poverty (Martin Gillens' Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy is the most complete examination of this topic).
So when you say the word "welfare," the image that immediately pops into most people's heads is a black one. Opinions about welfare and opinions about race are inextricably tied together, and there is no one who works in politics, Republican or Democrat, who doesn't understand that. Which leads us to our final question.
Does Mitt Romney's new welfare attack constitute race-baiting? The fairest answer is, yes and no. Its goal is without question to encourage middle-class people to resent poor people who are allegedly taking their money to lay about and do whatever it is poor people do with their cushy lives, and to adopt the false belief that Barack Obama is changing policy to make that happen more often. Note the difference between Romney's ad and the following ad from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. The policy goals expressed are the same in both—work requirements, time limits—but Clinton's ad doesn't frame welfare as undeserving poor people taking money from virtuous middle class people.
When an ad like Romney's arrives, it travels a well-worn path that Republican politicians have been carving for decades. The division between hard-working middle class people and parasitic poor people was the message of this 1972 ad from Democrats for Nixon, in which a hard-hatted construction worker contemplates the droves of new welfare recipients he'll have to pay for (and apparently also contemplates hurling himself to his death over it, if the vertiginous shots are any indication).
Like the Romney ad, this one doesn't mention race, but the Nixon campaign knew exactly what it was doing. So did Ronald Reagan, who famously complained of a mythical "welfare queen" in Chicago who supposedly drove in her Cadillac to get her checks. Here's an excerpt from a February 5, 1976 article in The New York Times, which pointed out that while "the former Governor of California has not made any direct appeals for antiblack votes," his indirect appeals weren't all that subtle:
Last night, for example, at an overflow rally in Fort Lauderdale, he said working people were outraged when they waited in lines at grocery store check-out counters while a "strapping young buck" ahead of them purchased T-bone steaks with food stamps.
The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression "young buck," which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.
In the years since, prominent Republican politicians have become only marginally more circumspect in the way they talk about the social safety net; you still hear occasional comments like the one Newt Gingrich made earlier this year when he was asked if he would speak before the NAACP, and he replied that if he was invited, "I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." The point is that when Republicans talk welfare, race is usually a subtext (at least).
Nevertheless, the racially charged nature of the welfare issue shouldn't mean that we can't debate it, and Republicans should be able to criticize the welfare policies of a Democratic administration without being charged with racism. But what's happening now isn't a "debate" by any stretch of the imagination, and the substance of Romney's attack is so spectacularly insincere that it simply can't be taken at face value. Up until a couple of days ago he hadn't said a word about welfare; on the policy, this is a battle Republicans emphatically won 16 years ago. Every last criticism of Obama in the Romney ad is simply made up out of whole cloth. Ordinarily, when a candidate makes a dishonest attack on his opponent there's at least a thin tether to the truth, even if it's distorted or taken out of context, but in this case what the administration has done is pretty much the opposite of what Romney says. That leads strongly to the conclusion that Romney has chosen to go in this direction for little reason other than the hope that something, anything, will generate a visceral reaction against the president. Don't think for a moment that Romney doesn't know that if his attack generates the reaction he wants, racial resentment will be part of the reason.