A True Reconciliation: Addressing Our Nation’s Social Safety Net

By Anne Price, President

Last week, remarks from a Minnesota lawmaker surfaced in which he was reported as referring to people receiving public benefits as “parasites” and “scoundrels.” The Congressman also suggested that Black people on public assistance have substituted “one plantation for another.” While stoking fears and fueling divisiveness through degrading and dehumanizing rhetoric have become startlingly commonplace under the current Administration, the blatant use of language that strips the poor and people of color of their basic humanity is long-standing.

Nour Kteily, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies our ability to see each other as human, found that many people are capable of othering and it’s not uncommon for them to compare other groups to animals or lower life forms than human beings. Both our history and cognitive research show that when we refer to people as “parasites,” “takers” and “animals,” it activates a mental switch in our brains that can provoke hostility and antipathy towards others.

Dehumanization is linked to support for policies that punish or exclude marginalized people in our social safety net system, including programs like Food Stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. A new study from UC Berkeley and Stanford University shows a causal relationship between attitudes to public assistance and threatened racial status. Researchers found that racial resentment increases and support for social safety net declines in selected periods, like after the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Racial resentment is heightened when whites fear that their population is declining or their status is being threatened, and thus call for deeper cuts in social safety net programs. Researchers discovered that whites also support cuts if they perceive those programs are primarily helping people of color.

Although it won’t be easy, we have the capacity to forge greater compassion and understanding to address our social safety net system protecting those struggling to meet their basic needs.

First, we must begin to invest in collective efforts to tackle harmful narratives that undergird social safety net programs. Not since the work of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a movement of thousands of poor women of color that demanded income and justice for their families, have we seen a large scale effort to intentionally shift the narrative around public assistance.

Secondly, we need to reimagine the systems and programs that we have in place right now. We have the opportunity to push for a paradigm shift at the state and local levels. In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee directed an inter-agency work group to use research and the voice of those affected to examine the root causes of poverty to improve how they are served. In this month’s Hidden Truths podcast, Dr. Lori Phingst discusses how Washington State is utilizing an equity framework and a community engagement strategy to address poverty in communities of color including the region’s indigenous peoples.

Finally, we need to think bigger and advance transformative policy change. The NWRO not only insisted that society has a responsibility to care for children, but that families who receive assistance had a right to determine how to spend their benefit checks on their children’s behalf.

We need to reimagine a new mechanism that reflects the benefits of economic fairness and allows people the freedom to make their own decisions about how to take care themselves and their families. Similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, proposals like a Social Welfare Fund could provide families with a permanent annual cash dividend. This type of fund is a collectively held financial fund that is fully owned by the public and used for the benefit of society as a whole.

We can no longer ignore the irreparable harms and historical trauma inflicted on people in our nation’s social safety programs, particularly people of color, that are a direct result of dehumanizing language that has informed policy decision-making throughout our history. We must reconcile with our past to create a better future.