Shandola Williams waits in an employment office on May 14, 2012 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The 19th century American economy was pretty lousy, especially in the slave holding southern states. Over 600 banks failed between 1836 and 1851, the Mexican American War didn’t help and the cotton market had collapsed. Some economists speculated that the slave economy of the South just wasn’t an effective system anymore and that fundamental changes might need to be made. But renowned slave physician Samuel A. Cartwright had other ideas.

In his 1851 book Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race he argued that runaway slaves (a disease he dubbed Draeptomania) was the cause of many of the South’s economic troubles. If slave owners would only work to eliminate that disease along with slaves’ lack of a work ethic (which he dubbed Dysaesthesia Aethiopica) the economy would work out fine.

Cartwright’s diagnosis of the South’s financial woes was certainly a lot more palatable than a wholesale evaluation of southern economic policy. Even though it was 150 years ago, this attitude hasn’t changed much in America, which goes a long way in explaining a new WSJ/NBC poll that shows that most Americans think welfare is the biggest reason for continuing poverty in America.

Which of the following reasons do you think is most responsible for the continuing problem of poverty: (RANDOMIZE) lack of government funding and programs, the lack of job opportunities, racial discrimination, the breakdown of families, drugs, the lack of a work ethic, the lack of good educational opportunities, or too much government welfare that prevents initiative?

 

Too much government welfare that prevents initiative

24

Lack of job opportunities……………………………………………

18

Lack of good educational opportunities…………………….

13

Breakdown of families……………………………………………….

13

Lack of work ethic………………………………………………………

10

Lack of government funding………………………………………

4

Drugs………………………………………………………………………….

3

Racial discrimination………………………………………………….

2

 Other (vol.) ………………………………………………………………..

4

 All equally (vol.) ………………………………………………………..

8

 Not sure……………………………………………………………………..

1

Digging into the numbers it is not surprising that during an extended period of economic uncertainty, a majority of Americans, and mostly white Americans, think that welfare is the persistent cause of poverty. Why?

Welfare myths more powerful than the facts

All you have to do is unpack the question and consider the racial and economic history of the United States.

First, most social science research shows that to white Americans welfare automatically conjures up images of lazy promiscuous black women in the inner city, popping out babies like rabbits and turning government cheese vouchers into gold chains and plasma screen televisions.

Consequently for many Americans any question about welfare and the economy is really a question about race. This is not new, but in fact a longstanding narrative in American politics where during times of economic stress business and political elites have ‘protected’ the majority of whites from swallowing the harsh realities of American economics with a sugary dose of racial distraction.

The actual facts about welfare have always been pretty clear; whites and children are the greatest recipients and beneficiaries of various programs, but that’s not good fodder for talk radio.  From the beginning of government sponsored welfare programs, discriminatory policies were enacted to keep blacks off the rolls (like excluding farm workers and domestics in the 1950’s) and even once those policies were removed media and politicians, especially on the right, insisted on maintaining the myth that the face of poverty in America was a black thing.

Politicians have played the welfare card

During times of economic hardship African-Americans make easy scapegoats, because it’s easier for many whites to digest than economic truth. The U.S. economy in the 1970’s was trashed by the oil crisis, Vietnam and failing manufacturing. But Ronald Reagan chose to pin the blame on black ‘welfare queens’ in the inner city who refused to work. The Gipper didn’t come up with that imagery, he just picked up that football and ran with it, like so many others since.

Inside Bill Clinton’s campaign war room his advisor James Carville famously posted a sign “It’s the economy, stupid” but outside on the 1992 campaign trail he promised America that he would “end welfare as we know it” to fix the economy. Black welfare moms were certainly an easier target than the Savings & Loans bank lobby.

In the 2000’s it seemed like the racial/welfare narrative might change when the face of economic graft and criminality became Enron’s Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, the housing crisis and the bank bailout. Even conservative white America began to wonder if these captains of industry that were really just pirates in disguise were a bigger problem than welfare cheats.

But it didn’t last; by the 2012 GOP primary we were back to Rick Santorum saying he didn’t want to give white money to black people and Newt Gingrich saying blacks should demand paychecks instead of food stamps. It doesn’t matter that food stamp rolls swelled with white people during the recession, blacks on welfare was a safer target. All of which brings us back to the WSJ/NBC poll.

We should not be surprised that many whites think welfare/ black laziness is the cause of poverty in the United States; politicians and elites have been selling that snake oil during every economic downturn for 100 years no matter what the facts are.

Way back in 1851 a northern writer satirically pointed out that many European indentured servants ran away from their masters too, and perhaps Cartwright’s “draeptomania” diagnosis wasn’t a black disease but  a white one as well. That perhaps the larger issue was abusive working conditions and not mental illness. Nobody wanted to listen to him back then either, just like for today’s WSJ/NBC respondents blaming victims is much easier than blaming the system.

Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell” He is a political analyst for CNN, HLN and Al Jazeera. Follow him @Drjasonjohnson and www.drjasonjohnson.com