The leaders of today's Republican Party are expert storytellers. When it comes to manipulating racial stereotypes for political gain, they are akin to animation artists of the 1920s: coloring the lines in black and white.
Last Thursday Newt Gingrich told a crowd of senior citizens in New Hampshire, "The African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Rick Santorum was even more egregious, claiming he doesn't "want to make black people's lives better by giving them other people's money" (although he later claimed that he never intentionally said "black").
Gingrich's latest offense comes only weeks after he received widespread criticism for saying that poor children should work as janitors and clean toilets. He specifically made a point of addressing "inner city" youths — which has become conservative code for black and brown people everywhere, from the South to the coasts, the suburbs to the metropolises, regardless of where they actually live.
For some odd reason, this is acceptable rhetoric among the conservative political class. It is especially troubling because every reliable statistic shows that white Americans are the overwhelming beneficiaries of welfare in this country and make up the largest number of those in poverty by a wide and substantial margin. The Republicans' well-rehearsed lies on the subject have been so effective that people of every hue have come to believe them, feeding widespread ignorance about the true face of poverty and the ever-growing gap between America's rich and poor.
Perhaps it's time for a lesson in mathematics and history.
The Myth of the Black Welfare Queen
Ronald Reagan, now lauded as the great Republican demigod, is largely responsible for the GOP's misguided obsession with framing African Americans as the predominant poor and welfare-dependent. In his 1976 race for the White House, Reagan repeated hyperbolic stories of a woman on the South Side of Chicago who was the quintessential "welfare queen."
Reagan claimed, "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."
Reagan never named the actual woman, but his statement, including the reference to the South Side of Chicago, said it all.
Though the story was later proven false, the concept became an American colloquialism, propagated by news media and Hollywood, and remains a disturbingly popular image of poor black women and families.
The truth? Of the 46 million people living in poverty in America in 2010, the U.S. census revealed that 31 million were white. Ten million were black. Of the 49 million people without health insurance coverage, 37 million were white; 8 million were African American. Latinos of every race and Asian Americans represented the remaining largest ethnic groups.
The face of poverty in America is overwhelmingly white, but as sociologist and professor William O'Hare explains in a 2009 study on children in poverty, the white American poor, especially those in rural areas, are "forgotten."
So What Do the Numbers Tell Us About Poverty?
White Americans, poor and middle-class alike, receive the vast majority of tax-funded government assistance programs, from monthly assistance to Social Security to food stamps.
TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), the program that provides aid to single mothers, is the most well-known welfare program, but the truth is that Social Security and Medicare are also social welfare services, funded by tax dollars. To that end, nearly 70 percent of all benefits of these programs go to white people. In fact, since African Americans have lower life expectancy, many work and pay into the Social Security and Medicare programs through their tax dollars, only to have white Americans, who have a longer life expectancy, benefit from the income they've left behind.
O'Hare's research in his 2009 report "The Forgotten Fifth: Child Poverty in Rural America," reveals that 57 percent of rural poor children were white and 44 percent of all urban poor children were white. But theirs is a story rarely told, their faces hardly seen. High poverty rates for poor and working-class whites have worsened since the 2008 economic crisis. Rural white poverty was already more systemic than urban poverty. Poor whites are more likely to lack basic education levels and remain in poverty for generations.
O'Hare found that white Americans living in rural areas benefited the least from the economic boom of the 1990s. The parents were often underemployed, and this translated into deeper poverty levels for their children.
The Food Stamp Fallacy and GOP Strategy
In December 2009, the New York Times published a series of related articles showing that poor whites across Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and through the Midwest, Deep South and Texas borderlands were the highest percentage of Americans relying on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamp, program.
Reagan and the GOP learned a powerful lesson from Barry Goldwater's devastating defeat in 1964 and the Southern strategy implemented by Nixon: that race was a powerful tool in securing the white vote, even if it meant convincing working-class whites to vote against their own economic interests.
It was Reagan who in 1980 described the Voting Rights Act as "humiliating to the South," a strategy that led to the phenomenon known as Reagan Democrats. By surreptitiously appealing to disgruntled working-class whites across the South and in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Reagan fed suspicions that Democrats were purveyors of welfare economics.
The "black welfare queen" image he touted only served to strengthen the resolve of white voters who considered themselves social conservatives. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his 2007 article "Republicans and Race," Southern whites still voted for the GOP at a ratio of 2 to 1. But for poor whites voting Republican, it's a strategy that only serves to keep them in poverty.
Like everyone struggling to provide for their families amid the nation's economic challenges, poor whites are a demographic sorely in need of progressive answers to their socioeconomic ills. Yet many remain adherent to a racially polarizing Republican Party that has taught them to fear Obama as "alien" or "other."
From Reagan to Gingrich to Santorum, race-baiting has only profited the Republican leaders who have sold it. Those at the bottom, and poor whites in particular, are left to pay the price.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.