When he launched his War on Poverty in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Tom Fletcher, an unemployed white Appalachian coal miner who lived in Kentucky. The White House had chosen Fletcher, who had eight children, to become the face of American poverty, and an iconic Time magazine photo captured the president squatting next to Fletcher and three of his boys on the porch.
Poverty, in the 1960s, did not just affect white Appalachians like Fletcher. As Johnson himself wrote in his memoirs, the poor “were black and they were white, of every religion and background and national origin. And they were 35 million strong.” But Johnson chose a white family to represent poverty to the American public. His legislative agenda would be contentious, and he needed as much support from Republicans and Democrats as he could get. It seems he made a calculation: Convincing elected officials, the majority of whom were white, to help poor people would be a lot easier if they thought of the poor as white people like them.
The example highlights a fact of life about welfare in America: People are more likely to support anti-poverty programs if they conceive of the poor as “like them,” especially when it comes to race. On a state-by-state basis, places with the most homogeneous populations tend to be the most generous. Oregon, for example, one of the whitest states in the union, has an extensive safety net, as I’ve written about before. Today, Oregon, where 84 percent of the population is white and 1.8 percent of the population is black, gives a single-parent family of three $506 a month through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the modern-day welfare program. Mississippi, which is 60 percent white and 38 percent black, gives a single-parent family of three just $170 a month. Oregon also helps people get off welfare by linking them to employment and pays their wages for up to six months. Mississippi has a work requirement for people receiving welfare, but does little to help them get a job. “I think what you see in other states is you see this kind of partisan, ‘we are going to take it out on poor people,’ philosophy. You just haven't seen that here,” Tina Kotek, a Democratic legislator in Oregon, told me last year.