Political and economic elites’ success in manufacturing mass ignorance represents the largest impediment to democratic empowerment today. Stoking fear of and contempt for the “other” – including minorities and the poor, is a common tactic employed in election to gain voter support. So is the stoking of hubris – as seen in the demonization of the poor, and in the rhetorical glorification of those “who work” against those (allegedly) “who don’t.” Unfortunately, countless Americans fall victim to divide and conquer techniques employed by elites. The goal moving forward must be to create a critical citizen consciousness, so the masses don’t simply “accept what they’re told” once every four years by the pretty faces running for office. What follows is a primer for readers to help in their conversations with friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and family, to fight back against the racist, classist propaganda so often employed against disadvantaged groups in the U.S.
I focus here on anti-welfare stereotypes promoted by the major candidates this election year. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, in addition to Hillary Clinton, rely on tired stereotypes, demonizing the poor in their efforts to gut social welfare spending. Clinton’s stereotypes reach back to the 1990s, when she and her husband championed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which eliminated the national government’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (a highly successful anti-poverty initiative with roots in the Great Depression). The Clinton’s support for PRWORA was justified via the assumption that the poor were seeking a free ride by gaming the welfare system and refusing to work, compared to most Americans who made their way through hard work and sacrifice.
Cruz and Trump continue Hillary Clinton’s assault on the poor. Cruz attacks the food stamps program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) for “trapping millions in long-term dependency,” while Trump alleges that welfare programs create “an incentive” on the part of the poor “not to work.” Trump recycles Romney’s old language from the 2012 presidential race, arguing that “we have a society that sits back and says we’re not going to do anything. And eventually the 50 percent cannot carry, and it’s unfair to them, but cannot carry the other 50 percent.”
I’ve long been frustrated by what passes for “common knowledge” regarding American welfare programs. Many conservatives I know embrace this “knowledge” simply because they’ve been socialized by parents, friends, and political elites to do so, without looking into the actual evidence. Cognitive dissonance is a major problem, with citizens becoming even more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted with evidence that clearly refutes their preexisting prejudices.
The U.S. is historically the least committed of all wealthy countries to taxing and spending on all types of social programs, although one would hardly know this by looking at popular media and political commentary. But what about many of the specific anti-welfare claims that pass for informed discourse in the U.S.? I tackle them head-on below, showing how most everything political elites tell you about welfare recipients is wrong.