7 Questions for Professor Martin Gilens

I’m usually a pessimist, but New York’s mayoral inauguration on New Year's Day gave me a strange feeling that politics had long stopped providing—hope. One expects the usual pomp and circumstance at these events: politicos, celebrities, prominent donors with the right amount of tradition, pop culture, and promises of a better day. But rarely do you hear of a twelve year old stealing the spotlight from those with last names like Clinton and Cuomo, but that’s just what Dasani Coates, a so-called “Invisible Child,” did.

Dasani catapulted to notoriety after the New York Times published a harrowing year-long account of her family's struggle in a city homeless shelter. No matter what you think of de Blasio’s progressive political agenda, his choice to have a poor black girl share the stage with some of America’s most prominent leaders is a clear sign that her story, and by extension, the thousands of other poor “invisible” children, matter. Holding the bible as Letitia James (her new “BFF”) was sworn in as the city’s new Public Advocate, Dasani’s presence was a visual reminder that she too was an important part of this city that should be seen and heard from during what James called this “gilded age of inequality.”

It’s become clear that stories like Dasani’s are all too common with many of the other 22,000 homeless children in New York City either remaining invisible, dismissed (The NY Post called the Times’ story “homeless hooey”) or misunderstood. When former mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about Dasani, he said: “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”

Perhaps the former mayor is naive enough to believe that poverty is only a game of luck, but many Americans see it that way too. And who can blame them? There are so few accurate portrayals of poverty in the media, particularly of black and brown folk. Single moms are demonized for needing help. The 47 percent are a stain on our society. Healthcare for more Americans, especially poor Americans, apparently should not be guaranteed. And on and on. This summer an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans think “too much welfare” is the cause of poverty, reflecting the persistence of myths about the poor.

Dasani’s narrative, de Blasio’s surprisingly popular populist rhetoric and the resurgence of conversations about poverty, inequality, and by extension race, led me to have a quick chat with Princeton University Political Science Professor Martin Gilens. He’s the author of Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy (1999, University of Chicago Press) and Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (2012, Princeton University Press).

[Edited and condensed for clarity]

Reniqua Allen: I was prompted to speak with you after reading the New York Times series, Invisible Child, which is about children and homelessness in New York. It’s receiving a lot of attention and even sparked an editorial response from the New York Post. Does this mean we’re doing a better job today talking about poverty in America?

Martin Gilens: Based on the evidence I've seen from earlier periods, I would be surprised if the media was doing a much better job. That series focused on an African American family, which itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It's not that reporters should not write about poor blacks. But on the other hand this was not inconsistent with stereotypes of black poverty. There was plenty of blame that could be attributed to the system that sort of let these people down in various ways, but there was also certainly plenty of blame for the family themselves that had opportunities that they squandered, so It was a nuanced. I thought it was a very insightful and interesting piece, but not one that is likely to change stereotypes about the nature of poverty in America.

Allen: In your first book, Why Americans Hate Welfare, you argue that racial stereotypes perpetuated in the press—particularly that of the lazy black person—is a central reason why people oppose anti-poverty policies. But a new report released last year was much more optimistic and thought that the stereotypes were actually diminishing.

Gilens: The most recent work I’m aware of on the media representation of race and poverty is by a fellow named Bas Van Doorn. He updated some of the analyses that I did and found that patterns remained the same in a number of ways. First, the overrepresentation of African Americans in images of the poor remained more or less at the same level during the 1990s and 2000s that I had found in the analysis that I did from the 1950s to the early 1990s. He also found, I think even more interestingly, that the pattern that I found of associations in the media between negative images and negative poverty stories and illustrations of African Americans also continued.

[I found] that when times are bad, the public generally becomes more sympathetic to the poor and images in the news tend to be whiter. During better economic times when there’s less sympathy for the poor, there are more images of African Americans. What Van Doorn found is that same pattern in more recent times. So again, consistent with what I found— that there seems to be this continuing association of the black poor with the undeserving poor.

Allen: Can you explain what the phrase “undeserving poor” means?

Gilens: In the United States, as in other countries, there’s a tendency to distinguish between poor people who are viewed as deserving because their circumstances are sort of understood to be a consequence of factors beyond their control and poor people who are viewed as undeserving because they're seen as a having contributed or even caused their own poverty, their own circumstances.

It’s problematic however, when the public misunderstands the nature of poverty and the extent to which poor people are responsible for their situations or when the vision of the poor, the deserving and undeserving groups, are unfairly associated with other characteristics, such as race. In the United States it appears that both of those undesirable aspects of how we distinguish between the deserving and undeserving exist. The public misunderstands the nature of poverty to some degree and also gravely sort of overestimates or misperceives poor people as a group to be composed more of African Americans than is the case. The undeserving poor in particular is associated with blacks in this country.

Allen: Does this have an impact on public policy towards the poor?

Gilens: I argue that the most important explanation of why many Americans oppose welfare spending or oppose cash assistance to the poor is the perception that a large proportion of the people receiving benefits are undeserving. That typically means they could get along without them if they really tried or that they're in the circumstance that they are because of the poor choices that they made.

Allen: Does this explain why there isn’t more of a push for policies favoring the poor in Washington?

Gilens: The patterns that I found from the earlier years would suggest that the public during the current economic recession would be more sympathetic towards the poor and more supportive of welfare and antipoverty programs in general. Now I haven't seen evidence that’s the case [today], but it’s clear that there hasn't been any up swelling among the public in support for increasing assistance to the less well off.

Perhaps because of Obama's race, and the association of race and poverty and welfare in this country, and because of Republican efforts to portray the Obama administration as government spending out of control (even though little of that spending was directed at the poor, a lot of it was bailouts for the corporations), it was a perception that the Obama administration had expanded anti poverty programs. That might explain a lack, or at least contribute to a lack of, you know, greater public support for increases.

On both sides of the aisle, there’s a tendency rather than combating these stereotypes, to take advantage of them for political gain, and it’s not just Republicans. Bill Clinton coming into office promising to end welfare as we know it, that’s not on its surface a racial appeal and yet there’s no way to talk about welfare in this country without a sort of racial undertone there. So I do think that politics and partisan politics, to the extent that both parties are trying to gain an advantage by appealing to public sentiment, does contribute to the perpetuation of these stereotypes because its much easier to sort of take advantage of existing stereotypes than to try to change them.

Allen: We’ve heard an increasing amount of rhetoric about the middle class, but not so much about the poor. Has policy followed this same path?

Gilens: To some degree, I think politicians are sympathetic and do think that we should be doing more to assist the least well off, which is also a sentiment that lots of the public share. They do it in less direct ways, at least rhetorically. The Affordable Care Act is very important benefit to, not the very poorest of the poor who also qualified for Medicaid, but to the near poor and large numbers of Americans who are struggling to afford health insurance. But of course it wasn't promoted that way for fear of sort of backlash. Similarly, the Earned Income Tax credit, which is a more popular way of fighting poverty, is viewed as less open to abuse. It’s only open to those who are working, so that’s another anti-poverty program or effort that’s expanded over the last few decades.

We have tried in various slightly roundabout ways tried to help poor people while avoiding some of the backlash that’s tied to especially cash assistance programs. Things like job training, education, and housing assistance, tend to be more popular than the individual cash assistance, or in the case of food stamps, near cash programs. I think those are the places for opportunities to expand efforts to help the disadvantaged without running into some of the public concerns and misperceptions about the nature of poverty and cash assistance programs.

Allen: Has the inequality conversation left poverty in the dust?

Gilens: Historically we haven't really spoken much about inequality, the focus has much more been on opportunity. There wasn't concern of the fact that rich people were doing well as long as people that were less well off could improve their situation by hard work and so on. That may be changing. There's certainly a lot more discussion in the media about inequality since the Great Recession. This is a phenomenon that has been going on since the mid 1970s. It’s not a new thing, but we do have new attention to it. It could just be that the degree of inequality is so great, combined with the fact that the middle class and the poor are not able, in recent years, to improve their situation, that we're finally starting to say, ‘well maybe there's some connections here. Maybe the fact that the middle class and the poor are doing so poorly has something to do with the fact that the rich are doing so well.’ 

My work shows that when the preferences of the middle class or of the poor diverge from those of the well off, that the poor and the middle class have virtually no influence over government policy outcomes. Policymakers seem to respond to the preferences of the well off, not perfectly, but to some significant degree, and little or none to the preferences of the middle class much less the poor, and we see that across many decades and many sort of issue domains. It’s not just economic issues, but with regard to social issues, and so on.

[When] we can reform our political system so that politicians, political candidates, and policy makers are less dependent on money from affluent donors and corporations then we will be able to shift policy in directions that will be sort of more broadly beneficial to the less well off in our society.