A curious paradox defines the politics of welfare in the United States. On the one hand, we are an extraordinarily generous and forgiving people. In 1998 Americans donated more than $170 billion to charity, and we have proven open to giving just about anyone (even, say, a philandering president) a second chance. Americans are willing, even enthusiastic, supporters of vast social programs aimed at protecting individuals from what Franklin Roosevelt called "the hazards and vicissitudes of life."
On the other hand, Americans are more likely to be poor than citizens of other industrial countries, and American government does less than other advanced nations to shield its citizens from poverty. If we're so generous, just why do Americans hate welfare?
This puzzle is at the heart of Martin Gilens's compelling book, and his answer can be summed up in a word: race. Americans dislike the programs most commonly called "welfare"-- especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and its successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)--not because they are too individualistic to believe in public social provision or too self-interested to pay for it, but because they associate these programs with African Americans. Gilens, a Yale political scientist, traces this connection in the public mind to the mid- to late 1960s, when urban violence drew the spotlight of the national media to ghetto poverty.
But therein lies another paradox. Never have Americans been as tolerant of racial diversity or as supportive of the rights and aspirations of African Americans as in the past few decades (although there is still a long way to travel on both roads). So how can it be that race remains the principal barrier to more generous and universal social policy?
The book's most original contribution is to demonstrate quite ingeniously the distorting impact of the media's focus on urban poverty. Media images of the poor are disproportionately black. While African Americans make up about 30 percent of the poor, about 60 percent of the poor people shown on network television news and depicted in the major newsweeklies between 1988 and 1992 were black. Similarly, the media portray the black poor in a disproportionately negative light. Every single picture in newsweekly stories about the "underclass"--the ghetto poor--between 1950 and 1992 showed African Americans, Gilens finds. In more sympathetic stories about predicaments such as hunger or medical care among the poor, only about one-fourth of the people pictured were black.
As a result of systematic distortion, Americans consistently overestimate the black proportion of the poor and of welfare recipients. More important, however, these slanted images of black poverty evoke age-old stereotypes about African Americans--that they are lazy, unintelligent, and so forth--labeling them as undeserving recipi-ents of public assistance. The white poor more often are seen as striving and hard working, yet helpless in the face of social and economic forces beyond their control.
The connection between race and deservingness is the crux of Gilens's argument, and the solution to the twin paradoxes he poses. Americans, it turns out, are perfectly willing to support welfare policies, as long as they believe that the recipients of aid are deserving. But many white Americans fault the work ethic of blacks. It is this kind of belief, Gilens shows, and not more overtly "racist" attitudes such as the belief that blacks are innately inferior, that affects support for welfare programs.
These findings, which demonstrate conclusively what many on the left have long suspected, would by themselves make the book important. But there is a deeper and broader significance to Gilens's work because it offers a powerful counterpunch to the prevailing welfare discourse, which was hijacked by the right in the mid-1960s and has been held hostage ever since. The conservative approach has reached its apotheosis in the work of Charles Murray, who has managed for nearly two decades to dress up in pseudoscientific language the most outrageous versions of the racial stereotypes that are at the center of Gilens's analysis, all the while claiming that he is not race-baiting but merely letting "facts" speak for themselves. This line of thinking found expression in national policy in the ominously titled Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which institutionalized the notion that welfare recipients are simply lazy, and whose truly Dickensian features are merely waiting for an economic downturn to make themselves manifest.
Gilens demonstrates that these pernicious claims are not wholly innocent of racialist thinking. Rather, they are built on a foundation of falsehoods, and they succeed politically not because they are correct but because they mobilize racial prejudice without seeming to be racist. His findings help to puncture the halo of scientific objectivity that has come to surround the welfare discourse of the right.
The book is also a model of the way social science can illuminate important public issues without obscurantism. Gilens uses necessarily sophisticated tools to construct his argument, but he conveys his reasoning to a lay audience clearly and effectively, without dumbing down, simplifying, or distorting in any way. In this sense also, Gilens trumps Murray, whose social-scientific reasoning has run the gamut from suspect to mendacious.
Like any book, this one has its limitations. The concluding chapter offers only a limited and cautious set of proposals for change: Race-neutral programs are better than race-conscious ones; policies that emphasize human capital, such as job training, might attract wider political support. And there are few hints about how media distortions and public misperceptions might be overcome or about how these problems shape the welfare policy making process. Similarly, the book's historical account of the race-welfare association is truncated, giving little sense of the political, social, and economic forces that shaped the events of the 1960s. But these are quibbles that should not detract from Gilens's important achievement, which should command attention from scholars, policy makers, and citizens alike.