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In Martin Gilen’s “Racial Attitudes and Opposition to Welfare,” a multi-dimensional study consisting of survey data, regression analysis, and covariance structure analysis is used to identify both the presence and magnitude of racial attitudes in the shaping of white Americans’ stark opposition to welfare programs. Gilen provides thorough analysis of existing literature, acknowledging both past successes and failures. When discussing his own research, Gilen clearly outlines his scope and purpose in addition to giving the reader a clear depiction of the methodology and results. Gilen’s work undoubtedly utilizes current literature, a new methodology, and interrelating conclusions to provide the reader with an unquestionable depiction of the role racial attitudes play in constructing opposing views to welfare.
In his introduction, Gilen provides the reader with a complete overview of the current literature. In his acknowledgment of the past failures of the research, Gilen notes that, “past scientists have been slow to examine the implications of racial attitudes outside the domain of racial policy, per se” (Gilen, 1995, p. 994). Past research shows that Americans typically undoubtedly support welfare programs that citizens pay into over the course of their lives, such as Social Security. When it comes to so-called “handouts”, white public opinion is less than satisfactory.
Gilen links together past efforts to interpret the views of Americans’ on welfare via the roles of economic self-interest and individualism. For more than 30 years, it has been said, “that ‘primitive self-interest’ alone” could provide the best explanation of trends in social welfare views. Individualism, found at the core of American society, has been found to be an important factor in shaping welfare. This belief stemmed from Tocqueville and was carried through to the late 1900s.
In his final statements on past research, Gilen focuses on the pitfalls. He notes that, “racial attitudes have been almost wholly overlooked in analyses of Americans’ welfare views” (996). While two authors, Kleugal and Smith, attempted to examine the support for welfare by pairing egalitarianism, self-interest, and individualism with racial attitudes, they acknowledged failure in that their racial attitude items created a weak index. Gilen uses the lack of research in this particular area as a means to define the scope of his work. He aims to not only “show the importance of racial attitudes” but also to clearly identify the “racial views most responsible for generating opposition to welfare” in America (997).
Gilen’s study was done using data from the 1986 National Election Study (NES). He chose the year carefully, stating that the “1986 NES contains both a wider array of questions on racial attitudes and a larger number of items tapping individualism than do more recent surveys” (997). He clearly delineates the NES’ questioning and how it relates to his own, noting that the study does not explicitly ask about spending on welfare in general, but rather whether the programs should be increased, decreased, or kept the same. This concise explanation of the scope of Gilen’s study of choice allows the reader to acknowledge his caution and consideration.
Gilen cites 11 questions on racial attitudes that were pulled from the 1986 NES, specifically excluding questions that blurred racial attitudes with general attitudes about government spending so as to maintain the integrity of his research. Factors analyzed include individual versus structural explanations for racial inequality, the belief that blacks are naturally inferior to whites, the role of government in insuring equal opportunity, and attitudes toward affirmative action, which will all be analyzed together. These four were chosen for consistency. A fifth factor, the speed at which civil rights leaders are pushing for change, will be analyzed separately. This note can be difficult for readers with little knowledge of the subject, but is subsequently explained.
After gathering his data, Gilen did an exceptional job at presenting the reader with findings that both follow a logical pattern of thought and are supported heavily with evidence. Gilen found that “four of the five dimensions of racial attitudes are at least moderately related to whites’ opposition to welfare” (1000). Of those, the strongest correlation (r=.42) belonged to blaming blacks for racial inequality. Of the five, only the belief that blacks are inherently inferior to whites was not significantly related to opposition to welfare.
Gilen also discovers that, of factors regarding economic self-interest, “family income is by far the best predictor of welfare views” (1002). Regarding individualism, six questions were analyzed to find the extent to which participants belief that working hard will result in economic success. Of the predictors mentioned in past literature, individualism was found to be the strongest influence on welfare views. A highlight in the findings of Gilen’s work is that the, “blame for racial inequality appears to reflect a specifically racial evaluation; judgments of the ‘culpability’ of poor blacks and poor whites appear to be largely independent” (1006). To continue that sentiment, Gilen also found that the majority of white Americans believe that “blacks could be just as well off as whites if they only tried harder” (1008). Gilen’s concluding remarks about his findings delineate an interrelation between race attitudes and welfare opinions that is hard to ignore.
While past research focused heavily on economic self-interest and individualism, Gilen made the bold decision to directly study racial attitudes regarding welfare opinions. In this study, Gilen was able to conclude that, “attitudes toward blacks must be counted as among the most central of these influences” (1010). His study shows that beliefs about blacks directly lead to certain policy preferences from white Americans. He concludes his work by stating that, “as long as the centuries-old belief that blacks lack commitment to the work ethic persists, white Americans’ opposition to welfare will remain strong” (1011). Gilen’s logical orientation to the subject matter guides the reader on a straight path to his conclusions, providing a sense of solidity to his findings. He brilliantly sets the stage for his study, clearly delineates its purpose and methodology, and then compares and contrasts his findings with those of previous literature. Gilen strategically argues his points, and that certainly comes across in his work. Future studies might focus on the intersectionality of race and gender relations in debunking the idea of “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads”. All in all, Gilen’s study provides new insight into the role that racial attitudes play in defining white Americans’ opposition to welfare.
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