Perceived threat to racial status leads to opposition of welfare among white Americans, Stanford sociologist finds

Researchers find that when white Americans perceive threats to their status as the dominant demographic group, their resentment of minorities increases. This resentment leads to opposing welfare programs they believe will mainly benefit minority groups.

White Americans’ attitudes toward welfare are influenced by information about demographic standing, says Stanford sociologist Robb Willer in a new paper published in the social research journal Social Forces.

Robb Willer, professor of sociology, is co-author of new research that tested how white Americans’ perception of racial status threat impacted support for welfare programs. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Co-authored with Rachel Wetts at the University of California, Berkeley, the research found that when white Americans are made aware that their demographic group will no longer be dominant – the United States is expected to become a majority-minority country by the middle of this century – they are more resentful of minorities. They found that this resentment can lead white Americans to withdraw support for federal entitlement programs like welfare.

Racial status threat

Wetts and Willer examined the idea of “racial status threat” – the notion that white Americans impose differential treatment over minorities as a means to protect their own existing power and privilege as the dominant racial/ethnic group in the United States.

“In the last two years there has been much talk about the role of racial status threat in the political attitudes of white Americans, but much of this speculation has gone untested,” said Willer. “Our hope is that this research helps fill an important gap in understanding how racial status threats work and what political views they can affect,” he said.

To better understand recent shifts in racial attitudes and trends, Wetts and Willer turned to nationally representative survey data from American National Election Studies. They discovered that whites’ and minorities’ attitudes about welfare diverged in 2008 – the same year as the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama as president.

The researchers found this correlation was no coincidence.

“We find that whites’ racial resentment rose beginning in 2008,” wrote Wetts and Willer. “These findings are consistent with our claim that feeling of racial threat – particularly, the perception of increased political power among minorities during a period of economic recession – helped shape whites’ welfare attitudes in recent years.”

How facts are framed matter

The researchers conducted two survey-based experiments with 400 participants to test how the perception of racial status threat impacted support for welfare programs.

In the first experiment, participants were shown one of two graphs that framed different aspects of demographic change. One graph highlighted a 60 percent white demographic majority between 2000 and 2020. The other emphasized how whites’ population share will fall to 40 percent by 2060.

Participants were then asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward public assistance, including questions about a scenario where they were charged with cutting $500 million from the federal budget. They were given a list of nine spending areas to cut, including federal entitlements.

Wetts and Willer found that when whites believed they would remain the majority group in the United States, they proposed cutting $28 million of federal welfare. In comparison, those primed with information about a white population decline suggested cutting almost twice as much – $51 million. This group also reported a significantly greater opposition to welfare and showed higher levels of racial resentment, said the researchers.

In a second experiment, Wetts and Willer examined how whites would perceive a threat to their existing economic advantage. Participants were shown one of two graphs about the racial breakdown of income trends during the last recession. Some were told that the difference between the average income of white Americans and black and Latino Americans had expanded in recent years. Others were told the opposite: that the average income of white Americans had shrunk significantly and wages stagnated. Participants were then asked to evaluate two social welfare programs – one that they believed mostly benefited minorities, and another that mostly benefited whites.

When people were made to believe that wages among whites had shrunk and also thought that a welfare program benefited minorities, they were more likely to withdraw their support. But whites’ support for programs they believed to primarily benefit other whites were unaffected by the information they saw, said the researchers.

“When whites perceive threats to their relative advantage in the racial status hierarchy, their resentment of minorities increases,” wrote Wetts and Willer in their findings.

Perpetuating inequalities

Wetts and Willer note that any progress toward racial equality may provoke resentment among whites if that progress is interpreted as a threat to their traditional status. Dominant groups might react politically in ways that undermine or even reverse progress to equality, they said.

“In the case of American social welfare programs, this further implies that evidence of increased racial equality could exacerbate overall economic inequality,” wrote the scholars. “As whites attempt to undermine racial progress they see as threatening their group’s status, they increase opposition to programs intended to benefit poorer members of all racial groups.”

This research adds to the project Willer led – with Wetts’ assistance – about the rise of the Tea Party, a political movement that gained momentum after the Great Recession and Obama’s election. Willer found that popular support for the Tea Party derived in part from perceived threats to the status of whites in America.