by Nick Baez
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine on the topic of immigration and anti-Latino sentiment. One of her comments caught me off guard: she suggested that more people would be open to the idea of more Latinos immigrating into the United States “if there were not so many Latinos on welfare and government assistance.” “After all”, she stated, “such programs of entitlement were a major contributing factor to the national debt.”
Puzzled, I simply asked her how many Latinos in this country are benefiting from these so-called programs of entitlement. “Oh, I don’t know,” she responded, “probably at least 45 to 55 percent.” At this point, I simply sighed and attempted to restrain my inner pit bull from rearing its ugly head. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous words during the 1976 presidential campaign, in which he spoke of a “welfare queen” from the south side of Chicago:
“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
Of course, this was a gross distortion of the facts. But he had accomplished precisely what he intended, which was to create a narrative that allowed people to identify a direct, tangible, and schema-consistent cause of their economic hardships.
Reagan had initiated a process that, over the next 35 years, would transform public perception of these so-called “programs of entitlement.” Once seen as a hallmark of American greatness during the 1940’s through the 1960’s, these programs began to draw the wrath of politicians who used economic uncertainty as a rallying cry to gain election into office (it is also not a coincidence that this narrative gained popularity when Blacks and Latinos gained greater access to these programs with the passing of Civil Rights legislation).
Nowadays, it is very common for people, like my good friend, to attribute the current economic situation to these very programs which – we are told – are exploited to a significantly large degree by Latinos and Blacks. But, what if I told you that almost nine out of 10 Latinos in this country receive no food stamps; what if I told you that 93 percent of Latinos in this country receive no form of government cash welfare; what if I told you that nearly 96 percent of Latinos in this country receive no form of housing subsidy?
It is now evident that perception, indeed, does not match reality. The existence of such a misguided narrative easily allows individuals to identify a “smoking gun” cause of economic hardship, but the damage that such a narrative creates is very real and very tragic. We see, for example, this damage manifest itself in the anti-Latino sentiment sweeping across the country. We watch as groups who have a negligible to nonexistent effect on the federal deficit (i.e., immigrants, “welfare recipients,” Muslims, women, Planned Parenthood, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, labor unions, teachers, poor whites, all non-whites, etc.) are nonetheless perceived to be at the root of economic upheaval.
Yet, it is the power of the narrative that drives this perception. And sadly, it is a narrative that many folks who are the targets of such misguided rage also buy into. Hence, as we undergo the process of crafting a 21st century Latino agenda, we must first and foremost assume ownership over the narrative we create for our community, in order that it may be seen as an indispensable part of the American and international experience.
To learn more about Nick, find him on Facebook.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.