Welfare, booze, and slots

Last-ditch Baker campaign move drew on an ugly tradition

On Nov. 7 the Globe ran a story describing Gov. Deval Patrick as angry that during the campaign Republicans had tried to blame him for a long-established system that provides some welfare recipients access to cash for unrestricted use. Patrick was angry, he said, because in fact Republicans were blocking him from fixing the system.

He had a right to be angry but at something far more sinister: the attack may have been racial.

The state’s policy, which allows some welfare recipients access to cash that might then be used for liquor, cigarettes, trips to Foxwoods, etc. certainly struck Massachusetts voters, and all the major candidates, as a dumb measure that ought to be changed.  So why might the Republicans’ raising the issue involve racial codes? The answer comes from Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain, which probes the effect our unconscious thoughts have on our judgments.

Vedantam describes a study in which Martin Gilens of Princeton University asked a number of white Americans their views on welfare. Gilens gave his subjects an example of a welfare mother in her thirties with a 10-year-old child – some were told the mother was black, others that she was white. The volunteers had about the same level of animosity toward both mothers, but negative views about the black mother were more important drivers of hostility to welfare generally than were views about the white mother. Most importantly for the hidden brain thesis, Gilens also found that if he did not identify the race of the mother the volunteers tended to assume the mother was a black woman.

What this means according to Vedantam is that for a political strategist wishing to tap racial bias “all you have to do is talk about welfare in general, and voters’ hidden brains will do the rest for you.” Remember Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, the one with multiple fraudulent identities, collecting checks under each one and sporting about Chicago in her Cadillac? Reagan never identified her by color. Actually he never identified her at all – she didn’t exist. But as George Lakoff explains in The Political Mind, people saw Reagan’s welfare queen as a “lazy, uppity, sexually immoral black woman who was a cheater living off of taxpayers, driving a Cadillac paid for by taxpayers, having children just to get money for them.”

Yet as Vedantam suggests, it is very difficult to tell if a concern about welfare is being raised because of legitimate policy doubts or because of race. So what can we learn about the campaign of 2010 and the welfare issue?

Welfare barely surfaced until the final days. When it had come up earlier, it was in the context of generally favorable reviews of Charlie Baker’s role in reforming welfare in Massachusetts in the 1990s. Baker also argued that he could save up to $100 million by instituting additional reforms.

On Oct. 8 the Herald published a story that helped trigger the later effort to inject welfare into the contest. The newspaper reported that after the Los Angeles Times found that California welfare recipients had spent $1.8 million in casinos, the Herald determined that some clients of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance were allotted Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that allow them to use funds without restriction. The agency conceded that recipients might use their EBT cards for liquor, Lottery tickets, “or even casinos.” The paper reported on one anonymous bar owner who had been encouraged to accept EBT cards.

That was it: a report from another state; an admission from DTA that it could not tell if anyone was using EBT cards for unsavory purposes; and an anonymous bar owner. No evidence of any Massachusetts EBT card holder buying even a solitary MegaMillions ticket.

There the issue sat for weeks, to be revived in the waning days of the campaign when polls indicated a narrow but stubborn deficit for the Republican candidate. Then the Globe reported on Oct. 30 that the Baker campaign “printed up ‘Deval Patrick’s Massachusetts EBT Welfare Cards,’ to use for ‘booze, cash, cigarettes, and/or lottery tickets,’ a striking attempt to mock a governor who himself grew up on welfare.” The Baker campaign’s “Fenway Park” ad accused Patrick of “Giving welfare recipients cash cards for booze, slots” – over a graphic crediting as the lone source the Herald’s Oct. 8 story.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
There are the elements identified by Vedantam and Lakoff: the unconscious association of welfare with blacks, the notion of the shiftlessness and immorality of recipients spending our hard earned tax dollars on booze and gambling. And like Reagan’s welfare Queen, no evidence of any real problem in Massachusetts.

The campaign is over and the welfare issue had little impact. Perhaps Massachusetts should be pleased at that. But in future campaigns we should also be alert to such tactics, and be ready to call out any campaign that tries them.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.