Episode 26: The “Welfare” Dog Whistle

Citations Needed | February 7, 2018 | Transcript

Citations Needed
39 min readJul 5, 2018



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Adam: So we haven’t touched on this in a long time. You and I are I know offline obsessed with the racialization of government spending in how these words and narratives get adopted, sort of brainlessly by the media. And one of those words is a word that we need to dissect because now in the past few weeks, especially after the, uh, the tax bill was passed, the Republicans are going after welfare, quote-unquote “welfare.”

Nima: “Welfare.”

Adam: So welfare is under attack. There’s a string of articles discussing how Republicans are going after welfare and yet no one has any clue what that means. Right as we were discussing this in genuinely kvetching about it, Sarah Jaffe, that The New Republican freelancer for The New Republican, wrote an article about how the word welfare doesn’t mean anything.

Nima: And how the media parrots it, and it’s basically just continuing the trope-y narrative of this weasel word.

Adam: And in the abstract it’s a perfectly pleasant word, right? We defend the welfare state. The welfare state is important in Europe. Welfare is a sort of generally positive thing, but in America it’s a fundamentally racialized term. And the fact that you know Paul Ryan or Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell say they’re going after welfare and The New York Times repeats Republicans now to turn their scalpel to welfare is a code word effectively for saying programs that benefit black people, but don’t worry, we’re not coming after your programs white people.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Cause welfare has a connotation of undeserved moochiness to it, which Sarah gets into in her article and we’re going to have her on here later, which I’m very excited about.

[Begin Clip]

Sarah Jaffe: Aid to families with dependent children program, which was the thing that Bill Clinton ended when he said, we’re ending welfare as we know it. And that was a program that had been started many, many years ago. It was designed as a support for women at a time when women mostly did not work and if they did work, they did not get paid very much. What happened with this is that as more black women began to get access to this program, well you know how that goes, right? The racist white people who are in charge of the government at the time didn’t like this so much, and so the program began to be stigmatized in a very particular way, which was that lazy black women, even though it was never mostly used by black women, we should note, were basically having babies so they could sponge off of this program.

[End Clip]

Nima: So what do we mean when we talk about welfare? It’s really this catch all term that could encompass any or all of the following social safety net programs that could include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP, a better known in layman’s terms as food stamps.

Adam: Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, TANF, which is cash benefits and general assistance.

Nima: Usually it’s we’re going to reform or the GOP is going to attack and gut welfare because welfare is for poor black people.

Adam: It is deeply racialized. It also is a kind of, for example, if you were to say, come over to my house and say, ‘Hey, you know, let me borrow your lawnmower.’ I would say, ‘I don’t do welfare.’ It’s a colloquial pejorative for something that’s kind of a superfluous giveaway. You sort of don’t deserve, but I’m going to give it to you because I’m nice because I’m benevolent. Right?

Nima: And so deservingness I think is a key component of this and this has been a very racialized term for decades now. I think we can trace it back a little further than this, but I think it’s really important to actually listen to the Ronald Reagan campaign speech, the clip from his presidential campaign speech in 1976 where this notion of the welfare queen really was birthed.

[Begin Clip]

Ronald Reagan: In Chicago they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.

[End Clip]

Nima: That is the very famous Ronald Reagan quote that really introduced this notion of undeserving handouts to people that are mooching.

Adam: That was not true at all. Right?

Nima: Well, part of that is that the person he’s actually talking about whose story is, is not quite what he was saying and it’s a very tragic tale. Um, the person’s name is actually Linda Taylor and she wasn’t even black, but the way that it reads, the way that it reads and the way that it was then exploited, because Reagan kind of shopped around that quote a lot and he used it, he kind of tested it out in his southern speeches. And then in those speeches he actually used the term ‘standing in line at the grocery store’ behind this young strapping ‘buck’ who was using food stamps to buy like t-bone steaks. And ‘buck’ if you actually know about the racialized terms in United States discourse in American discourse, ‘buck’ is a 100 percent racialized term, meaning like a young black guy and usually as it pertains to like threatening or raping white women. I mean it’s fundamental to like Birth of a Nation. The trope of a ‘buck’ as being a very racialized term is set.

Adam: Right so he was already sort of speaking-

Nima: And then later in the campaign, Reagan would actually change that to like to, ‘Oh, a young man.’ Once it was embedded, what he was talking about, he didn’t have to be as racialized in the way that he was saying that.

Adam: Again. He knew exactly what he was doing. This is a speech that was given, much like his states’ rights speech in Philadelphia and Mississippi. You know, we use this metaphor in the episode with the atheist, but it’s the language has subtext. It has, it has context. If you come over to my house and you open the refrigerator and I say have whatever you like and you take the ice cube trays, we would consider that anti social behavior because words have context.

Nima: Its clearly not what you mean.

Adam: Yeah, and so like Reagan knows this, we all know what this means.

Nima: Exactly. Exactly.

Adam: And part of what we try to do on the show is to say like, clearly welfare has a racist implication or at the very least, at the very least has a sense of undeserved, moocherism. Right? And so when I was in church as a kid, I’m going to go on a rant here, sorry, when I was in church as a kid, and there was a really great sermon that was given about, by Buckner Fanning at Trinity Baptist after we left Cornerstone. He wrote a sermon about the difference between grace and charity. Charity was sort of in the Christian context is considered something that you’ve been forsaken or you’ve been born poor, you know, charity is something you give someone. Whereas grace is sort of something that God does for you that you don’t deserve, that you fucked up and grace, which is considered in certain Christian circles to be the highest sort of moral order.

Nima: Right. The most benevolent.

Adam: Yeah, because you don’t even deserve it. And welfare is a sort of secular version of grace. Its saying that like, ‘you’re a piece of shit, you’re lazy but I’m going to give you welfare’ because its sort of the superfluous thing.

Nima: Right. Right. It’s not even charity. Its not even charity.

Adam: No its not even charity.

Nima: Its just total giving over of something totally undeserved and actually this notion is unpacked brilliantly in the book Dog Whistle Politics by Berkeley Professor Ian Haney-López, who points out that in modern American politics there are commonly two broad themes. One is the declining economic opportunity and the other obviously is race. Haney-López defines ‘dog whistle politics’ as quote, “Coded racial appeals that carefully manipulate hostility toward nonwhites.” And examples that he gives or things we’ve often discussed on this show Adam, like racialized crime reporting, demagoguery about welfare queens or of the food stamp president and even brown hordes crossing borders and installing Sharia Law in town halls and state capitals.

Adam: Right.

Nima: So like this is all part of a political calculus to divide and conquer, right? To exploit and encourage working middle, lower class white people to support what are clearly self defeating policies and voting against their own interests because they see themselves as being deserving and others has not.

Adam: Right. They would literally rather die than help a poor black guy because they’ve earned it and he or she has not.

Nima: Exactly. So the point is obviously producing this feeling or a frustration, a sense that some people, blacks, immigrants, Muslims, women, whatever, are getting more than what they work for, right? More than what they earn ultimately more than what they deserve. And not only that, but these games, these handouts come out of the pockets of upstanding white taxpayers, right?

Adam: ‘Handouts’ is a good one too.

Nima: The tax payers, and so it winds up doing this zero sum game where hard working Americans, which is always code for white people and no one else, are being taken advantage of by those on welfare. Right?

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Those getting stuff that they don’t deserve.

Adam: I do want to be clear here, because the word ‘racially charged’ is I think useful here because I do think that if this was like, let’s say like in Britain where the population of minorities is less or even like a Norway or whatever, or even if you know, we woke up one day in this country was entirely white. These concepts would still exist but they wouldn’t quite have nearly the amount of purchase like on a visceral level that they would have otherwise. So when Fox News, which they love to do, they love to do this, this graphic where it’s “Handout Nation” and Jon Stewart used to make fun of it, where a hand comes out like literally a hand protrudes out of America. It’s this like white proper Christian hand and it’s handing money to like the rest of this country. So it was like really cartoon, I wish we had a TV show so we could show it, but it’s, it’s like this hand comes through and it shows you “Handout Nation” cause we’re all just a bunch of mooches, and the whole segment is about people that are abusing welfare and this is something you see time and time again where welfare abuse is the single most common thing that happens all the time and people are just mooching, riding the gravy train and not working. Because the implication being that while you work, because again Americans are deeply overworked right? While you work 50 hours a week at Walmart, and you’re white, and you play by the rules, that there’s this black guy across the street living large and going to the grocery store and buying all kinds of shit.

Nima: Watching a huge flat screen, feet up, not doing work.

Adam: Oh yeah. Not doing work.

Nima: And so Trump traffics on this all the time. All the time. In large part, he got elected because of this and specifically articulated exactly what we’ve been talking about during a cabinet meeting back in October and I actually want to play that clip right now.

[Begin Clip]

Donald Trump: We’re going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform. That’s becoming a very, very big subject and people are taking advantage of the system and then other people aren’t, aren’t receiving what they really need to live and we think it’s very unfair to them, but some people are really taking advantage of our system from that standpoint and we are going to be looking very, very strongly therefore at welfare reform. It’s going to be a very big topic under this administration and its started already and we have a lot of, a lot of recommendations that we’re going to be making and you’ll be hearing about them.

[End Clip]

Adam: There’s deserved and undeserved poor, right? There’s charity versus grace and that is such an exceedingly racialized dichotomy because again, he’s a white nationalist, so he doesn’t do the sort of typical right-wing thing where he sort of says no one deserves it. He is openly and I think very flagrantly saying that there is a white contingent of people who deserve it and that they’re actually being denied this because of welfare by African Americans. The interesting thing about Trump is he, again, he heightens contradictions, he makes it clear that this is a deeply, cause who the fuck are the people not getting it versus who are getting it? I mean, its not really clear, but it’s clear based on his previous rhetoric and his fan base.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s very clear what he means by that.

Nima: This really fits into this anti civil rights, almost like a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement that started in the sixties, the backlash, and that has continued today. I mean there’s this kind of grievance industry, but when Trump speaks, it’s so reminiscent I think of the famous Barry Goldwater campaign slogan from 1964, which was this, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: And if you know anything about the Goldwater campaign, it was anti civil rights, it was all about this sort of very racialized dog whistling.

Adam: ‘We don’t talk about it at cocktail parties, but deep down inside we both know that those n words don’t deserve money.’

Nima: Deep down inside, and yet this idea which now Trump is trafficking on, of course, this has been done for decades and decades. The idea that the welfare state in the United States is such a drain on the system, right?

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: That so much money is going to these people who aren’t even working, which is A) not even true because most people who get welfare are also working. And the social safety net budget in this country, which includes SNAP and school lunches and TANF and the stuff that we mentioned, SSI at the top of the show, um, the entire budget for those things works out to about 10 percent of the budget. So far from crippling the federal budget. Um, this is, let’s say take from a budget and in 2015, 10 percent of that is that social safety net and $3.7 trillion, which was spent by the US government that year, the largest expenditures were Social Security at about a quarter of the budget, healthcare about another quarter of the budget, obviously defense and foreign aid at about 16 percent, and that 10 percent for these social safety net programs it includes unemployment insurance, low income housing assistance, uh, help with energy bills, programs that help abused and neglected kids. Like these are all included in this 10 percent of the budget, which obviously is not the reason why Republicans are freaking out about the budget, which they don’t actually care about.

Adam: Right.

Nima: They just care about taking away these programs.

Adam: Yeah. And our guest today, Sarah Jaffe, I think has done a excellent job breaking down this term and how it’s a term we sort of use without thinking much about what it means and what its implications are moving forward as Trump and Paul Ryan try to gut quote unquote “welfare,” the definition of which remains elusive though deeply racialized.

Nima: Yeah. So Sarah is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and has covered labor, social and economic justice and politics for Truthout, The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times, many other publications including The New Republic. She’s the co-host of Belabored , a labor podcast, hosted by Dissent magazine and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt, which came out just a couple of years ago. So we’re going to be joined by Sarah and have a great chat in just a sec.


Nima: We are joined now by Sarah Jaffe who has a new article, as we said earlier in the show, in The New Republic about the term “welfare,” which we had been talking about. Sarah, it is so good to have you on Citations Needed.

Sarah Jaffe: It is great to be here.

Adam: We caught your article and I said, you know what, that is a perfect, something that we had never noticed before, but in retrospect made total sense. It was like the end of Usual Suspects. I put the pieces together. I dropped my coffee mug.

Sarah Jaffe: Does that make me Keyser Söze?

Adam: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And I basically said, you know, this is a term that even I use casually, but we don’t really think about what it means. And in your piece what you did is you went back and you showed how the term welfare has kind of morphed to suit the demagoguery needs of Republicans.

Sarah Jaffe: Right.

Adam: Can you just give a background about what the term welfare means and how the media is aiding and abetting this use and misuse of the term?

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. So we sometimes tend to think about welfare in terms of just like, I don’t know whatever Republicans don’t like that poor people get or whatever. Some Democrats don’t like that poor people get. But, you know, the, the term and the demagoguery around the term has a very specific history that was up until 1996 associated with a very particular program. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which was the thing that Bill Clinton ended when he said we’re ending welfare as we know it. And that was a program that had been started many, many years ago for essentially to help mostly women whose partners had died or whose husbands had left them or something like that. And it was designed as a support for women at a time when women mostly did not work. And if they did work, they did not get paid very much. And what happened with this is that as more black women began to get access to this program, well, you know how that goes, right? The racist white people who were in charge of the government at the time didn’t like this so much. And so the program began to be stigmatized in a very particular way, which was that lazy black women, even though it was never mostly used by black women, we should note, were basically having babies so that they could sponge off of this program. And Ronald Reagan was sort of the famous one who, um, introduced the welfare queen into our discourse. Um describing a woman who, you know, was getting $100,000 a year in government checks, which is like a thing that never happened.

Nima: Right. We actually played that clip earlier in the show. It’s remarkable.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. And so, you know, so this is a thing that, that all of this demagoguery that started in like the sixties and seventies, at the same time we should note as black women were organizing for better and less punitive welfare. This snowballed until we got 1996 where even the Democratic president is running campaigning, talking in his State of the Union about how we need to move people from welfare to work. And so in 1996, they passed a law. They ended welfare as we know it. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, because of course, and this, you know, this ended the program and turned it into block grants. Um, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is now the program with temporary being the very operative word there. It is a program designed to push poor women into low-wage jobs. That is what it is designed for. That is what it does. And so when you look at like the organizing of the Fight for $15 now and the particular workers were the, started it, there’s a straight through line to these welfare policies, right? These were always, always, always about scapegoating a certain class of women as non-workers, as lazy, as sponging off of productive workers. And this feeds into all sorts of problems that we still have, including the fact that politicians are still recycling the same old lines about how we need to move people from welfare to work, which is what Trump said in the State of the Union. Even though we don’t have welfare, there is literally no one’s sitting around getting cash assistance anymore because we don’t have welfare like this. You have a tiny group of people who are able to get some benefits for some limited period of time and then they are forced to take whatever lousy job comes along.

Nima: Right? I mean, I think something that is so often missed is this idea, as you just said, Sarah, like there isn’t this thing, this program called ‘Welfare’ that does things for people, you know. Uh, obviously a lot of people would frame it, takes money from hardworking Americans, which always means white people, uh, and gives it to the lazy unproductive people who don’t just don’t want to work, which obviously always means either black or brown people. But there’s no actual welfare program. It’s this catchall shorthand term. Can you just tease that out a little bit for us? Explain what welfare actually is.

Sarah Jaffe: I mean, the thing right now, right, is that like we don’t know what they mean when the Republicans say they’re going to cut welfare.

Adam: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: Because like there is nothing that’s, that’s not a specific term that’s like me saying I want to, you know, tax people. Like, okay, who, what, where?

Nima: For what? Right.

Sarah Jaffe: This is not a thing, right? There is nothing called welfare that they can cut. What there is is the broad welfare state, which is something that like we don’t talk about as much in this country outside of academic contexts, but is basically as my partner, who is actually an academic who studies the welfare state, put it, everything the government does that isn’t kill people or spy on them or put them in jail.

Adam: Yeah, that seems about right.

Sarah Jaffe: (Laughs) But particularly programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, right? Uh, anything that you think about unemployment insurance, right? Like these are parts of the welfare state and other countries that have reasonable actual welfare states. They have things like universal health care. Um, and so, you know, when you look at this, Republicans saying ‘welfare, we need to move from welfare to work, we’re going to target welfare’ and when you see this laundry list, and I put like seven or eight of them in the article, but I could’ve done about twelve more, of reputable publications saying, “Republicans to target welfare, Medicaid, Medicare spending,” “After Push on Taxes Republicans Line Up Welfare Revamp Next,” “GOP will tackle Medicare, Medicaid, welfare in 2018,” “Trump to take on welfare,” “Political risk looms over Republicans’ welfare tinkering.” These are all mainstream publications. These are not like, you know.

Nima: Yeah. That’s like Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, the Times, CNN. Yeah.

Sarah Jaffe: Right. The thing is like there is zero information there. There is no information in the word welfare. Somewhere in some of these articles it actually says like, well what they actually mean is Social Security, which is what they actually mean.

Adam: Right? Which is not a term that people would typically associate with welfare because it’s not as racialized.

Sarah Jaffe: Exactly. People think Social Security is the thing that they have earned and they have worked for and they associate it with it being like the opposite of welfare.

Adam: I mean it’s basically a way of leading by saying Republicans are going to cut spending for black people, so don’t worry white people.

Sarah Jaffe: Right, exactly.

Adam: That’s really what that means.

Sarah Jaffe: Exactly, this is what they’re doing and they’re doing it very deliberately. And it’s been, it’s a dog whistle that’s been primed for decades. It is designed to appeal straight to this quote unquote “white working class base of Trump’s,” which is actually just rich people who voted for Trump, who think that there is still some population of lazy people who are getting handouts from the government and that is going to be the way that they actually tackle programs that we all rely on.

Adam: And then the welfare is typically coupled with this other great sleazy nebulous neo liberal term, which is ‘reform.’

Sarah Jaffe: Mhmm. (laughs)

Adam: Which sounds very wholesome. Like there’s this sort of corruption of it. It’s got spiraled out of control and it needs reform. When people say welfare reform, what are the, I mean, they must always mean just mindlessly gutting it. Correct? Is there?

Sarah Jaffe: I mean, right. I, I, you know, Bill Clinton was at least honest and he said we want to end welfare as we know it, right?

Adam: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: Um, and yeah, it was called welfare reform. And so, right, I mean, when, when Republicans say they want to reform something, they usually mean they want to cut the funding out of it.

Nima: They want to murder it.

Sarah Jaffe: This is true about public schools and it’s true about quote unquote “welfare.” Um, it’s true about Social Security, it’s true about Medicaid and Medicare, like whatever they’re talking about reforming, they’re talking about making sure fewer people can get it.

Nima: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: That’s why they’re on this big kick about work requirements for Medicaid now because of course a program that is the number one form of support for people who are disabled and unable to work or people who have a disability but have some ability to work or people who are elderly and can’t take care of themselves anymore. That program needs work requirements.

Adam: Yeah. There’s this punitive kind of puritan streak to it um-

Sarah Jaffe: Oh god yeah.

Adam: Similar to, you know, you have to take a drug test to get government benefits. There’s a racialization and a kind of condescension to it.

Sarah Jaffe: Oh yeah.

Adam: How much does that kind of rhetoric, I mean, I, you know, reading your headlines here, these are from CNN writers, Christian Science Monitor. These are, again, these are not like Fox News.

Sarah Jaffe: No.

Adam: I was shocked, uh, very much so. And it’s hard to do that to me and just how, how mindless it had become because obviously is very racialized.

Sarah Jaffe: No, like I see people who I, who are leftists like tweeting sort of things about this. And saying welfare and I was like, ‘Come on guys!’ We need to actually acknowledge that like there is nothing called welfare, like at least in the nineties when they were talking about welfare reform, we sort of knew what they were coming for.

Adam: Right. Whereas it as a positive connotation in Europe. Can you explain how that, those two branches of the tree divided and maybe what the origins of that are?

Sarah Jaffe: You know, I don’t know the particular history about why Europeans are good at using terms like welfare state and neo-liberalism and people in the US think that you’re nuts and you just made up words. But right. Like the welfare state is a thing that was a, a creature, not entirely, but largely of the post World War II reconstruction of destroyed Europe. Right? And like the, you know, the English for instance, elected a Labor government after the war they, you know, Winston Churchill could win the war, but then after they were like, ‘Eh, things are pretty bad. Maybe we need somebody who believes in supporting other humans.’ Um, and so this Labor government was the one that created like the National Health Service. Um, there is, uh, a family allowance in Britain, right? That where everybody gets a certain amount of money and everybody, even the Queen gets a certain amount of money per child. Um, this is the kind of thing that like welfare is attacked for. This is just horrible. How could you give people money for having children? You’ll just create dependency, right?

Nima: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: But in some countries they realize that raising children is work and it is the reproduction of the society and these are things that are perhaps important and maybe we want to encourage people to do. And so the best way to encourage them to do it is make it less difficult for them to afford to. Um, and there are many, many examples of this, but like the US never had a very strong public welfare state. Most of it, and I was just thinking about this week and put these two pieces together because I was listening to a podcast with Lane Windham who has a new book called Knocking on Labor’s Door, and she’s talks about this and the book, that the welfare state in the US is largely provided by employers and it was provided by employers because unions made them do it. And so this has been a positive and a negative, right? Like the labor movement has occasionally at periods in American history, been a little hesitant about pushing for state provided benefits because then like, well, what, why would people join unions if they just got healthcare through the country? But in other cases the labor movement has spent a lot of time that particularly certain unions like the National Nurses United spent a lot of time advocating for a universal healthcare system. But anyway, what happens is that the government in the US in the form of the National Labor Relations Act encourages unionization. That is what the purpose of that law was back in 1935. Um, and so that was supposed to be the sort of stick as Wyndham puts it, to make employers bargain with their employees and give them things like health insurance. What’s actually happening now is the government is doing the opposite thing. They’re giving the stick to the employers by putting work requirements on first on quote unquote “welfare” now on Medicaid to force people to take the first available job and to take away their ability to bargain. So if you have work requirements on Medicaid like they’re going to have in Kentucky and now in Indiana, what happens is that you lose your health insurance because there’s a work requirement on it now and then you have to go get a job because there’s a work requirement on your Medicaid, but then you get a job and you make a little too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but you can’t get insurance through your employer because your employer is McDonald’s and they don’t do that.

Nima: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: So this is what work requirements for Medicaid are actually going to do. They’re going to force people to take lousy jobs that don’t give them benefits.

Nima: Yeah. That part of your piece, Lane’s writing I found really fascinating. The, uh, the idea that in the thirties, there was a, at least nominal balance of power in that the government supported unions, but then also that’s why employers had health insurance, you know, to offer. And so it had that give and take and um, and that, that’s been completely erased on purpose obviously. Something that I wanted to talk to you about is the fact that I found something profound about you writing this piece in The New Republic.

Sarah Jaffe: Oh yeah.

Nima: Which you actually note in, in your own articles.

Sarah Jaffe: There’s a line in the piece, yeah.

Nima: You actually note it in the piece itself that The New Republic is responsible for one of the most race baitingly egregious covers and you know, cover articles of all time.

Sarah Jaffe: It was racist.

Nima: Yeah, I mean it is just straight up, straight up racist.

Sarah Jaffe: And I, you know, and I, I respect my editors there now. I mean, first of all, they came to me to come be a regular contributor to The New Republic. So clearly that’s your first sign that it’s not Andrew Sullivan’s New Republic anymore. And then the second thing is that I wrote that line and they did not give me one bit of whatever they, in fact, my editor inserted the title of the magazine in there. So it was very clear that I was talking about The New Republic. They are absolutely, you know, at least the people that I work with over there committed to being honest about the history of the magazine, including it’s unpleasant parts. So that was, I was pleased that they would let me do this.

Adam: For our listeners, you want to describe it?

Sarah Jaffe: Yep. The New Republic in 1996 ran a cover, it’s linked in the piece, that said, told Congress who signed the welfare bill now, and the cover photo was a black woman holding a baby and smoking a cigarette.

Adam: Yeah.

Sarah Jaffe: Because the implication being, a) you’re a terrible mother, if you smoke cigarettes, b) that, you know, this woman is obviously lazy and undeserving of government handouts and would just be much better if she was forced to get a job.

Nima: Exactly.

Sarah Jaffe: And of course, again, black women were never the majority or even half of the people on welfare. It was always a program that primarily benefited white women.

Adam: To me, the greatest is the greatest welfare state on Earth is the defense department.

Sarah Jaffe: Oh yeah. Well there is a whole other set of things we could talk about there.

Adam: Yeah. So we increased the defense department budget this past year by 11 percent, the biggest since right after 9/11 in 2002 for roughly $80 billion. Um, and suddenly the, one of the, I guess the sort of secondary crime of a lot of these headlines is, and a lot of this sort of framing is that it’s framed as a sort of ‘we’re running out of money’ thing and that Republicans are being fiscal hawks, the kind of usual stuff. And we’ve talked about this on the show ad nauseum about how, how they managed to get away with that, um, welfare because of it’s sort of racialized context is sort of basically like saying government spending that doesn’t need to exist and we’re going to fill in the blank of what that means later.

Nima: (Laughs) Right.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah.

Adam: And yet of course, whereas the opposite is true for the Department of Defense.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. Although one of the things that’s interesting is that in at least one of these badly titled nebulous articles, um, there is a mention that veteran’s benefits are one of the things on the chopping block, so-

Nima: Which is shocking that that got mentioned.

Sarah Jaffe: They’re always coming for the VA. They don’t want to actually take care of the troops. They just want to yell at Colin Kaepernick for not being sufficiently respectful.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: It’s funny, I was actually did an article on Charles Lane. He because he always calls for balancing the budget and cutting government programs. And the one time he ever called for cutting a military program was the veteran’s pensions. He wanted to privatize it. It’s the only time they ever.

Sarah Jaffe: Yep. Exactly.

Adam: Same thing with the, with the, uh, government quote unquote “shutdown.” The only time that they ever touched the DoD is when they cut veterans benefits.

Sarah Jaffe: Yep, exactly. Exactly right. They will ship you off to war and you will stay there forever and then when you come back you’re screwed. Yeah. And, you know, there are many of these programs that veterans among others will rely on, um, because I mean, again, they’re coming for programs that are going to hurt a lot of people if they’re cut. They’re not just programs that are for a small group of people. And, um, I interviewed Rebecca Vallas who does the poverty program at the Center for American Progress the other day and we were talking about the way that people talk about poverty as if there’s like some set class of people who are always and forever the poor. That poverty is like a, you know, intrinsic characteristic of a person like your skin tone or your hair color. And that’s not true. That most of us will actually experience poverty at some points in our lives. And we have to actually understand this as something that can happen to you. I loved the line from Johnnie Tillmon who is the, um, the leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization that I put in the piece. And um, she said, “Welfare is like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.” This is a thing that can happen to you in a flash and especially, you know in this country after the 2008 financial crisis where you had people who thought that they were middle class thought that they were set, bought a house, have a mortgage, have two kids, have a job. With one fell swoop you were underwater on your mortgage. You lost your job, you couldn’t pay the mortgage anymore. You lose your home, and you’re poor. And so this is a moment, a few, just a few years later, people who went through that still remember it really well. This is a moment that we can actually be talking about this in a meaningful way and saying poverty is not like a thing that happens to those people over there. It’s actually a thing that can happen to any of us because we live in a system that creates it and depends on it and relies on it and allowing this sort of sloppiness in this moment when, again, more people have had this experience than any time since the Great Depression, which just, you know, it’s unconscionable to me that people let this kind of garbage slide.

Nima: Right a great point made in that same interview you did, was added to that point is, is the fact that just by having a job doesn’t mean you can’t be poor. I mean like it’s not, oh well now you’re working and so therefore you don’t need any help from anybody.

Sarah Jaffe: The minimum wage in a lot of this country is still $7.25 an hour.

Adam: Right.

Sarah Jaffe: It has not changed in many, many places and the only places that it has changed are because a lot of people organized and fought for it and so yeah. So right. You have people who are working full time, whatever full time is these days, and or two jobs and you’re still just scraping by.

Nima: Which also gets back to the point about work requirements as you were saying, that just because you have to take a job, have to take a job. That means you can’t be discerning in what job you’re taking. You don’t have the freedom to leave that job if it sucks or if you don’t want to be doing that and try and find something else. You are stuck. As we talk about poverty, I’m reminded of a very recent article by Molly Osberg in Splinter, which kind of shook me to my core. It’s called, “How to Not Die in America,” and it’s about she had this, um, very rare bacteria that affected her system and she literally almost died. This is a journalist and she, in this article kind of outlines all of these different ways where had this not been in place, had she not had a mother who could actually come down and visit her. Had she not had this, a boyfriend who helped her out in some way, had she not had an employer who allowed her to take some time off, all that stuff. She would’ve been decimated in a completely different way than like almost dying, which was a very real possibility for her. And uh, you know, as we talk about the welfare state and what services are available or most often are not available. This article really hammered that home about thinking about all the different ways that we are helped out in our lives and how these moves to really destroy “welfare,” quote unquote, which isn’t really a thing, but all of these programs, the social service programs, are just hacking away at the ability for people to survive. To live.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. And that’s not an accident. Again, it’s very deliberate. And think of the protests this summer, particularly the folks from ADAPT, the disability rights organization, right? That were literally chanting things like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’ ‘Save our liberty.’ Right? Medicaid, which again, they want to put work requirements on, Medicaid pays like 70 something percent of all home healthcare workers in the country for a lot of people, that’s what they depend on to be able to live at home and not be in an institution or a nursing home. So when they say ‘Save our liberty, don’t cut Medicaid.’ That’s real. That’s the difference between you having some control over your life and you being stuck wherever somebody can stick you, cause the government doesn’t really fund those either.

Nima: So it seems to me that also, you know, and we’ve been talking about this a bunch Adam and I, that when people hear the short hand term welfare, I think there’s this immediate thought that it goes to food stamps.

Sarah Jaffe: Right.

Nima: Like only. Like it’s just food stamps.

Adam: That’s I think what most people think of. What I think of.

Sarah Jaffe: I mean the thing is I don’t know what people think when somebody says welfare. I have no idea. Other than that it is sort of racially coded nebulous thing. I have no idea what the average person who reads an article at CNN, at The Washington Post, at The Wall Street Journal thinks when they see the term welfare. I’ve no idea. That’s the problem, the problem is like there is nothing specific to this. If welfare had sort of slipped and become code for food stamps, but it’s not what they mean either. Right. I mean it probably is part of what they mean, but like that’s the thing, like there’s no information in the term welfare or like the, you know, they say anti poverty programs in a bunch of these articles.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Yeah.

Sarah Jaffe: What does that mean? That means heating assistance maybe? It means housing assistance? Section 8? I don’t know, like what does it mean?

Nima: School lunch.

Sarah Jaffe: Right. We have no idea what it means.

Adam: You, uh, you touched on this earlier, but there’s something very interesting that I hadn’t thought about until you guys brought it up, which was the false dichotomy or kind of mutual exclusivity that’s set up even with the term welfare to work. The assumption being that you’re either on welfare not working or you’re working and also productive. And that language, especially the way that Clinton drove it home, I think it really does reinforce this idea that people who are on welfare are not working when it’s almost always the opposite.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. Somebody had done a study on the, uh, Amazon warehouse workers who are all on food stamps because Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who is also the owner of The Washington Post, bringing it all back around. He can’t pay the workers in these warehouses enough money to not be on food stamps. Um, my favorite thing was Walmart workers. Many Walmart workers rely on SNAP, which is the technical term for food stamps and they also, Walmart is also the biggest recipient of those SNAP dollars. So like Walmart is not paying you enough money to live so the government is stepping in and providing that extra. So Walmart is already being subsidized by the government to keep its employees not dead. Eating right? That’s important if you’re going to go to work. and then on the back end, Walmart is getting those food stamp dollars straight back in because it’s where in many cases, the cheapest place to buy food where your food stamp dollars will go the furthest.

Adam: It’s a great racket.

Sarah Jaffe: And so it’s a really insidious system when you think about this stuff. And it is absolutely a support for people who are already working. In that case, we should think of it again as a subsidy that is going to Walmart. It’s not a subsidy that’s going to the woman who works at Walmart for 10 bucks an hour. It is a subsidy that is going to Walmart to allow Walmart to only have to pay $10 an hour.

Adam: It was a great irony that, I think the food stamp article came out within 36 hours of Amazon launched that no checkout line store and Bezos’ net worth went up $2.8 billion , which is, which means he made in 18 hours of the equivalent of the GDP of Liberia while his, well many, many workers make less than, I think someone even calculated it, he made the year equivalent salary of the average wage employee at one of the Amazon warehouses in .8 seconds.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. Yeah. I mean he didn’t make. He accumulated.

Adam: Well what they say is they say, ok, well stocks are not liquid. It’s not the same as cash. But it really isn’t. Because if he wants to borrow against that stock, he can. It’s the same thing as having the money.

Nima: Sure.

Sarah Jaffe: Oh yeah, no, it’s absolutely the same thing as having the money. I would just never say that he made it.

Adam: Oh well sure. Yeah, he, he, he-

Sarah Jaffe: I would say he confiscated it. Appropriated it.

Adam: But yeah, like, pollen and a flower just sort of rested on top of him.

Nima: (Laughing) Exactly.

Sarah Jaffe: Right. (Laughing) Try to be careful about these terms.

Nima: Just to actually point out the numbers that we’re talking about, this report actually came from Policy Matters Ohio. Um, it says that at this point Amazon is one of Ohio’s largest employers, more than 6,000 workers.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah.

Nima: Certainly they have plans to build three more big warehouses, so thousands more are coming and that as of August of last year, August, 2017, over 1,400 of those employees are family members were getting assistance under SNAP, uh, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. So, uh, yeah, no, just to lay out those numbers, it’s not insignificant. It is literally saying, I mean you can work for the richest man on the planet and still need what some refer to as handouts and you know, that you are somehow some, some like leach and moocher on society.

Sarah Jaffe: These programs, these are, these are minuscule things that would not make a dent in the hole that the Republicans just blew in the budget with their tax giveaway to people like Jeff Bezos.

Nima: Right. But obviously, um, are very important to keep people alive and fed.

Sarah Jaffe: Right.

Nima: And so thank you so much Sarah Jaffe for joining us. This has been awesome. We’ve urge everyone to read your, your article in New Republic and to follow your own work, especially the Belabored podcast, which do you want to tell us a little bit about that before we go?

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, so we have been around for about five years now, doing a, a now bi-weekly podcast on labor. It is me and Michelle Chen, who’s birthday it is today as we’re recording. We talk about the labor movement, labor organizing, the world of work and a why it’s terrible and how we can make it better.

Adam: That sounds great. Big fan of both of ya’ll. Thank you so much for joining us.

Sarah Jaffe: Thank you.


Nima: That was Sarah Jaffe reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, contributor to many, many different publications, co-host of the Belabored podcast and of course author of the book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. It was so great to talk to her, um, her article in New Republic and a recent interview that she did really made me think about the term welfare in a way that I hadn’t before. Right?

Adam: No she’s great.

Nima: It was like, oh right, that is literally a meaningless phrase.

Adam: Yeah. We’ve talked about the racialization of social programs and the way that those terms take on, but the actual, I had noticed that in recent weeks the term welfare was being used in such a casual way and that really took us down this rabbit hole of what, uh, what that means and what we mean by welfare in these sort of colloquial contexts. So that was great. I’m deeply impressed by her ability to break stuff down, but it’s always good to have guests that are better and smarter than you.

Nima: I think that it’s important to note why, especially in the post civil rights era, Johnson and then into Nixon, why these programs were seen as such a threat by white communities. And I think that this is actually something just going back to Dog Whistle Politics, the book by Ian Haney-López that I talked about earlier in the show, he’s written that poverty in non white communities was, was deeply tied to racially closed workplaces, schools and housing, and as a result, welfare and integration became tightly linked and hostility toward integration, morphed into opposition to welfare.

Adam: I didn’t know that.

Nima: And so, you know, you look at what these programs alleviate, right? You look at the hardships and the injustice that these programs alleviate and they are exactly the things that keep these communities in poverty and if those communities are not in poverty because they are getting that assistance, they are then threatening the power, the hegemony, the overall power dynamics in white communities.

Adam: Right. There’s a deeply patronizing viewpoint of the kind of David Brooks, um, kind of conservative outlook that African Americans can’t just get a free handout there has to be, this was the whole ethos behind welfare reform in 1996, which is that you have to work for it. ‘Welfare to work’ was the term, and as we mentioned with Sarah that applies to kind of um, false dichotomy between welfare and work even though, you know, 80 some odd percent of the time people on welfare are working.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And yeah. And people that are working are one paycheck away from welfare. And so this kind of patronization, this kind of, you know, we need to sort of rewire the African American from being lazy um and if you know, the history of African American stereotypes the irony was, or one of the really perverse ironies was, is that during slavery, the cliché about African Americans was that they were really, really hardworking and docile but not intellectual or threatening or kind of clever. They’re just stupid. And then the second, after reconstruction.

Nima: Right. Right after emancipation and after the war is over and then reconstruction.

Adam: Right the stereotype became, ‘Oh, they’re actually very clever and very smart and crafty.’

Nima: ‘They’re just super lazy.’

Adam: ‘But super fucking lazy.’

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: And it’s like, well, who the hell do you think built the entire fucking economy of this country? You know, again, this goes into the whole like deserved and undeserved poor. There’s a quote you have that you showed me offline that we want to read that is the definition of liberal patronization of African Americans.

Nima: Yeah, no, this is amazing. So back in 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan-

Adam: By the way, this is a liberal democrat.

Nima: Glazer then became like a Harvard social scientist, did a lot of work on racism and public policy. Moynihan obviously became a politician and so they wrote this book about the history of New York called Beyond the Melting Pot and it really just reads like a guide on how to think like a shithead racist.

Adam: But in very like liberal terms.

Nima: Well right. And so it reinforces the notion throughout that poverty, for example, is primarily pathological and so they wrote that quote “In major part” end quote, the causes for minority communities to have inferior educational, social and material possessions turning their attention to what they call quote “the home and family and community” end quote, of these minorities. This is what they wound up emphasizing and it is all based on what they call and we’ll recognize this term obviously what they call “broken homes.” This is how they talked about the destructive consequences that come from these quote “broken homes,” which is in itself very racialized. Here it is, quote, “The mother is forced to work (as the Negro mother so often is),” —

Adam: Forced to work.

Nima:— “when the father is incapable of contributing support (as the Negro father so often is), when fathers and mothers refuse to accept responsibility for and resent their children, as Negro parents, overwhelmed by difficulties so often do, and when the family situation instead of being clear cut and with defined roles and responsibility is left vague and ambiguous (as it so often is in negro families).” End quote. So this was really written. This was written and fucking published in 1963.

Adam: Yeah. It’s the idea that they’re sort of poor because they make bad moral choices and this was really ticked up during the Bush administration. George W. Bush did this a bunch, which is this fetishization of marriage and getting married and marriage incentives. This is now making a comeback. The National Review recently did an article about this. There is a law that was passed in Minnesota that brought back the marriage incentives that they’re trying to ring back, which is this patronizing idea that we need to create tax incentives to get people to have children and that welfare creates a dependent state that doesn’t have them and this is something that even liberals like Moynihan and so forth would accept.

Nima: So Minnesota’s version of TANF, which we were discussing, one of these programs is called the Minnesota Family Investment Program. There’s this push to have this now turn into incentivizing marriage.

Adam: Yeah. Which is just a way of keeping women in bad relationships.

Nima: And it also I think plays into this narrative of single mothers and absentee fathers that if you only, if you only had a good, you know, white picket fence, Christian, white family, then you wouldn’t need any of these programs. Those demographics are not even born out by any evidence and it’s even patronizing to even talk to about the fact that this isn’t true.

Adam: The subtext of the whole thing is that black people are fucking lazy and that’s why they’re poor and they make bad life choices and bad moral choices and oh shucks, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: I mean that’s, that’s like every David Brooks column ever.

Nima: Maybe one final aspect of this is how it also fits in with this idea, the GOP obsession with tax cuts and small government that because these are all federal programs, right? So if the big bad federal overlords, the government overlords, are running these programs, giving your hard earned white money to black and brown people-

Adam: Yeah. I do have white money. That’s true.

Nima: And thereby taking away your power, your agency, stripping you of your wealth and handing it over to the undeserving. Then government itself has to be stopped and I think we’re seeing how that bears out in reality, not in terms of government shutdowns because that’s a whole lot of garbage, but in terms of the willingness to elect those whose entire purpose is to destroy government.

Adam: And this catch all nebulous term ‘welfare’ permits them to do that in a really, it can be as small or as big as they want it to be. And as Sarah points out they’re using this term in a very malleable way because that’s the whole point of it. You can literally just take every one of these headlines and everyone of these quotes and replace the term ‘welfare’ with ‘shit for black people’ and there would be no meaningful difference in how the average white person would interpret that.

Nima: And how they would respond to it. That’s exactly the purpose. That is the dog whistle. I think one final thing I will say is that in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform Bill that completely destroyed what was previously known as these social safety net programs since then, the number of Americans living in extreme poverty, which is about $2 per person per day, has more than doubled. The results of these cuts-

Adam: Are non trivial.

Nima: Are not only non trivial, but often anathema to what they’re sold as doing.

Adam: Right. Yeah.

Nima: They literally hurt more people rather than help people.

Adam: Its amazing when you cut programs for the poor, you hurt the poor.

Nima: Yeah shocking.

Adam: I know, crazy. Well, that was a good one. Um, that was a barn burner. Glad to have Sarah on.

Nima: Yeah she was great.

Adam: I learned a lot myself. So I hope ya’ll liked it. A little social media shout out. You can follow us on Facebook at Citations Needed, Twitter @CitationsPod or go to our Patreon where you can give us some support to help the show continue to go. A little welfare for us would be very appreciated.

Nima: And a huge shout out obviously to our critic level supporters. Thanks everyone for joining us. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. The music is by Grandaddy. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thanks again for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, February 7, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.