The federal program known as welfare delivers cash assistance to less than 1 percent of the United States population. This is far smaller than the share of those aided by food stamps, or by other government support like disability benefits, unemployment insurance, college grants and medical benefits.
But none of those other social programs have captured the public imagination or pervaded American politics as thoroughly as welfare, a piece of the safety net that helps about 2.5 million people. Its outsize influence has remained — and could soon become larger — even as the program itself has shrunk to its smallest size.
Unexpected evidence of this emerges in the research of Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell University perplexed by the trends that Americans have come to dislike government more and more, even as they have increasingly relied on its assistance through programs other than welfare. Americans are far less likely today than 40 years ago to say in surveys that they trust the government to do what is right or to look out for people like them. At the same time, the share of Americans using nearly all of these other programs has risen.
In 1969, 7 percent of the average citizen’s income came from federal social transfers, and in 1979 it was 11 percent. By 2014, it was 17 percent, according to Ms. Mettler’s analysis of dozens of programs, including means-tested aid like food stamps, benefits tailored to narrow populations like veterans, and broad-based government programs like Social Security.
Her accounting totals most of the ways government assists people in their daily lives, regardless of whether programs are targeted at the poor, or require taxpayer contributions (the number would be higher still if we included benefits like the mortgage interest deduction that are channeled through the tax code). The growth in these programs, over a time when middle-class wages have stagnated, has lifted residents of some counties to count on government for as much as half of their income.
In her surveys, Ms. Mettler has found that people typically say the programs they’ve used have helped them. It seems reasonable to think that this sentiment might translate to appreciation for government — that the more programs people use, the more they might value the government that supplies them. But this is not what she found. Relying on government doesn’t make people more likely to value government, or make them feel more strongly that government is responsive to them.
Their feelings about government don’t appear connected to their own direct experience of it. But those feelings are shaped by opinions about other people’s reliance on government aid — specifically, on “welfare.”
That was the “one factor that just kept showing up again and again,” Ms. Mettler said of the data she describes in a recent book, “The Government-Citizen Disconnect.”
People who strongly dislike welfare were significantly less likely to feel government had provided them with opportunities, or to feel government officials cared what they thought, regardless of how much they’d relied on government programs themselves.
“Their attitudes about welfare end up being a microcosm for them of government,” Ms. Mettler said. “They look at how they think welfare operates, and if they see that as unfair, they think: ‘This is basically what government is. Government does favors for undeserving people, and it doesn’t help people like me who are working hard and playing by the rules.’ ”
Her surveys did not define the word “welfare.” So it’s unclear if people who say they strongly dislike the program were envisioning the cash transfers now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or if they had in mind a broader collection of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or food stamps) that help the poor.
The slippery definition of the word is part of what has made it so politically potent. Whatever programs people attached to it in their minds, Ms. Mettler’s data suggests that people who have used, say, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and veteran’s disability payments over the course of their lives may be more influenced by their dislike of something they haven’t used than by their experiences with the programs they have.
For perspective, in historical data Ms. Mettler has collected, this is how usage of welfare cash assistance actually compares in scale with some of these other programs:
So what accounts for welfare’s disproportionate hold on how Americans think of government? Other research points to the role of racial resentment: Controlling for other factors, states with larger African-American populations have imposed stricter rules and less generous benefits in their welfare programs. In Ms. Mettler’s data, whites were more likely than African-Americans to disapprove of welfare, as were middle-class people relative to poorer ones.
Some politicians opposed to welfare have implicitly linked the program to minorities, evoking “welfare queens,” recipients from the “inner city” or immigrants who come to America just to use welfare. It has both effectively tied minorities to welfare, and tied welfare to government writ large.
The Trump administration has begun to take this connection one step further: It has proposed reorganizing the federal government to place many of these social programs under a new agency with the word “welfare” in its name.
The president has repeatedly used “welfare” to refer expansively to all programs that aid the poor. And a recent Council of Economic Advisers report on expanding work requirements for Medicaid, food assistance and housing aid pointedly rebranded those programs as “noncash welfare.”
“They certainly know that people hate welfare, and if you call something welfare, you get a large share of Americans who are against it,” Ms. Mettler said. The negative power of the word is so strong, she suggested, that programs that garner broad approval under another name could easily be tainted by it. “Call something welfare,” she said, “and forget it.”