A sign opposing Medicaid expansion is displayed on a roadway in Center Cross, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

White Americans are increasingly critical of the country’s social safety net, a new study suggests, thanks in part to a rising tide of racial resentment.

The study, conducted by researchers at two California universities and published Wednesday in the journal Social Forces, finds that opposition to welfare programs has grown among white Americans since 2008, even when controlling for political views and socioeconomic status.

White Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs, the study says.

The findings suggest that political efforts to cut welfare programs are driven less by conservative principles than by racial anxiety, the authors conclude. T hat also hurts white Americans who make up the largest share of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients. President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans have proposed deep cuts to both programs.

“I think our research is very relevant to politics,” said Rachel Wetts, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the new research. “My main hope here is that people take a step back, look at what these sorts of programs do for the poor, and think about what’s driving opposition to them.”


The demographics of welfare recipients in three federal programs. (Sources: Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Kaiser Family Foundation)

Wetts and her co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, conducted three separate experiments designed to gauge white Americans’ attitudes toward welfare and the factors that influenced them.

In the first, the researchers analyzed 10 years of nationally representative survey data on attitudes toward race and welfare programs. Between 2008 and 2012 in particular, they found, opposition to welfare rose among all Americans -- but far more sharply among whites, who also began scoring higher on racial resentment scales during that period.

These trends weren’t necessarily linked, however. So to determine if there was a connection, Wetts and Willer designed two more experiments: one in which they quizzed respondents on their feelings about welfare after seeing a graph about U.S. demographic change, and another in which respondents took a similar quiz after viewing information on average income by race and the demographics of welfare beneficiaries.

White Americans called for deeper cuts to welfare programs after viewing charts that showed they would become a racial minority within 50 years. They also opposed welfare programs more when they were told that people of color benefit most from them.

Those results show that the push to cut welfare programs is not driven by pure political motives, such as decreasing government spending or shrinking government bureaucracy, Wetts said.

“We find evidence that these shifts [in sentiment against welfare programs] are specifically directed at programs people see as benefiting minorities instead of whites,” she added.

Wetts isn’t ruling out the possibility that alternate factors could also be at play, of course. Some researchers have found that people embrace more conservative politics during periods of rapid social change -- not necessarily because they fear their racial status is threatened, but because they fear change is happening too fast. Others have argued the connection between white Americans’ racial resentment and their politics has been exaggerated.

But there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that white Americans who fear a loss of racial status are driving major shifts in policy and politics. A major study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April concluded that President Donald Trump was voted into office by people anxious about rising racial diversity and globalization.


Researchers have also shown that white Americans' racial prejudice affects their views on everything from healthcare policy to the death penalty to dogs. On the same day Wetts' paper published, a separate study in the journal Environmental Politics found that people with high levels of "racial resentment" are more likely to believe that the scientific consensus on climate change is false.

"[White] racial resentment has become much more highly correlated with particular political attitudes, behaviors and orientations," political scientists Adam M. Enders and Jamil S. Scott wrote in a January analysis for the Post's Monkey Cage blog. "More and more, white Americans use their racial attitudes to help them decide their positions on political questions such as whom to vote for or what stance to take on important issues including welfare and health care."

When it comes to welfare, those stances will become important in coming months, Wetts noted.

The Trump administration has begun allowing states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, and has proposed tripling the rents for the poorest households receiving federal housing assistance. The House is also scheduled to vote again next month on a plan to cut $9 billion from food-stamp benefits over 10 years and require most adults to hold a job  to receive payments.

A minority of Democrats and Republicans say they support cuts to poverty spending, according to a 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center. Figures from the federal government and the Kaiser Family Foundation show that white Americans make up 36 percent of food-stamp recipients, 43 percent of Medicaid recipients and 28 percent of recipients for cash welfare.  

Read more:

Congressional Republicans are laying the groundwork to overhaul welfare programs for the poor

States with more black people have less generous welfare benefits, study says

White racial resentment has been gaining political power for decades