Yale Professor Blames Media for "Racializing" Poverty

In his provocative new book, “Why Americans Hate Welfare,” Yale professor Martin Gilens shows that both print publications and television news broadcasters routinely misrepresent poor Americans of all races. But poor blacks, he shows, are portrayed more negatively, and less accurately, than poor whites.

The media, Gilens argues, offer a portrait of American poverty that exaggerates racial differences and unfairly associates blacks with the least attractive subgroups of the poor. And when stories on poverty do take on a more sympathetic tone (as they tend to do during economic downturns), images of poor blacks are replaced with images of poor whites.

Examining over 40 years of news coverage in both television news and print newsmagazines, Gilens found that the media neglect sympathetic groups like the working poor and the elderly poor. Furthermore, despite the inflated numbers of black faces in most poverty stories, these relatively sympathetic groups are far more likely to be portrayed as white.

“Most journalists reject the stereotype of blacks as lazy,” Gilens writes. “But in the everyday practice of their craft, and especially in their choice of photographs to illustrate stories on poverty, these same journalists portray poor blacks as more blameworthy than poor whites.”

The result of this skewed reporting is not simply that blacks are most often associated with poverty, but that they are perceived by a majority of white Americans as responsible for their own condition. This stereotype of blacks easily translates into widespread hostility to welfare. Yet, Gilens shows, it is not welfare itself that Americans hate, but the idea of assisting a class of people perceived as “undeserving.”

In this bold and carefully researched study, Gilens presents a new way of viewing the poor, racial relations, and ourselves. “Why Americans Hate Welfare” should be on every reflective citizen’s reading list.

Among Gilens’ findings:

– The portrayal of the poor as black began in the mid-1960s, coinciding with a shift toward more negative news coverage of poverty and welfare.

– Both the press and the public exaggerate the extent to which poverty is a black problem.

– 65 percent of poor Americans shown in network television news are African American.

– 62 percent of poor Americans shown in newsmagazines are black.

– In surveys, over half of the public says most poor people are black; only one out of four say most poor people are white.

– In reality, African Americans make up only 29 percent of the country’s poor.

– Racial misperceptions influence Americans’ beliefs about the poor and their willingness to help. Among white Americans who think most welfare recipients are black, only 31 percent say “most people on welfare want to work.” But among those who think most welfare recipients are white, fully 55 percent hold this view.

– Americans strongly support both the “carrot” and “stick” of welfare reform. Welfare time limits and work requirements are very popular with the American public, but so is increased funding for job training, child care, transportation to work, medical care, and other services to help welfare recipients support themselves.

Despite their cynicism toward welfare recipients, Americans want to do more to help the “deserving poor,” both black and white, Gilens found. Most middle-class Americans are even willing to pay higher taxes if the money were used to fight homelessness or to provide education, medical care or job training for the poor.

“Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy,” (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Gilens is an an associate professor of political science at Yale, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1991. He welcomes inquiries from the media.

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345