Welfare queen is a pejorative phrase used in the United States to refer to people, usually women, who are accused of collecting excessive welfare payments through fraud or manipulation. Reporting on welfare fraud began during the early 1960s, appearing in general interest magazines such as Readers Digest. The term entered the American lexicon during Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign shortly after he described a woman abusing welfare from Chicago's South Side, but he never used the term "welfare queen" when referencing the woman.
Since then, it has become a stigmatizing label placed on recidivist poor mothers, with studies showing that it often carries gendered and racial connotations. Although American women can no longer stay on welfare indefinitely due to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the term continues to shape American dialogue on poverty.
The idea of welfare fraud goes back to the early-1960s; although the offenders in those stories were typically male or faceless. There were, however, journalistic exposés on what would become known as welfare queens. Readers Digest and Look magazine published sensational stories about mothers abusing the system. Some of these stories, and some that followed into the 1990s, focused on female welfare recipients engaged in behavior counter-productive to eventual financial independence such as having children out of wedlock, using AFDC money to buy drugs, or showing little desire to work. These women were understood to be social pariahs, draining society of valuable resources while engaging in self damaging behavior. Despite these early examples, stories about able-bodied men collecting welfare continued until the 1970s, at which point women became the main focus of welfare fraud stories.
The term was coined in 1974, either by George Bliss of the Chicago Tribune in his articles about Linda Taylor, or by Jet Magazine. Neither publication credits the other in their "Welfare Queen" stories of that year.
The term "welfare queen" is often incorrectly stated to have been coined by Ronald Reagan, although he did use the phrase in 1976 in a radio commentary. During his 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan would tell the story of a woman from Chicago's South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud:
"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."
The Washington Post reported that Linda Taylor may have been the women who inspired Reagan's story. Linda Taylor was "known as the Welfare Queen, as she is credited with taking in more than $150,000 a year in welfare benefits...[police detectives allege that she] had at least 26 aliases, with identifications to match; was listed at more than a score of telephone numbers; could show her address at more than 30 locations in and around Chicago; owned a portfolio of stocks and bonds under various names and a garage full of autos, including a Cadillac, Lincoln and a Chevy wagon; had three Social Security cards; was wed to several husbands who had died; had recently wed a 21-year-old sailor at a nearby naval training center; and was about to leave on a Hawaiian vacation."
Taylor was ultimately charged with committing $8,000 in fraud and having four aliases. She was convicted of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases. She was sentenced to two to six years in prison.
In political discourse
The term "welfare queen" became a catchphrase during anti-welfare dialogue and eventually became a permanent feature of American folklore. Media hype from the 1980s to the 1990s also aided in perpetuating the idea. The term came under criticism for its supposed use as a political tool and for its derogatory connotations. Criticism focused on the fact that individuals committing welfare fraud were, in reality, a very small percentage of those legitimately receiving welfare. Use of the term was also seen as an attempt to stereotype recipients in order to undermine public support for AFDC.
The welfare queen idea became an integral part of a larger discourse on welfare reform, especially during the bipartisan effort to reform the welfare system under Bill Clinton. Anti-welfare advocates ended AFDC in 1996 and overhauled the system with the introduction of TANF. Despite the new system’s time-limits, the welfare queen legacy has endured and continues to shape public perception.
Gender and racial stereotypes
Political scientist Franklin Gilliam has theorized that the welfare queen stereotype has roots in both race and gender:
"While poor women of all races get blamed for their impoverished condition, African-American women commit the most egregious violations of American values. This story line taps into stereotypes about both women (uncontrolled sexuality) and African-Americans (laziness)."
The media's image of poverty shifted from focusing on the plight of white Appalachian farmers and on the factory closings in the 1960s to a more racially divisive and negative image of poor blacks in urban areas. All of this, according to political scientist Martin Gilens, led to the American public dramatically overestimating the percentage of African-Americans in poverty. By 1973, in magazine pictures depicting welfare recipients, 75% featured African Americans even though African Americans made up only 35% of welfare recipients and only 12.8% of the US population.
From the 1970s onwards, women became the predominant face of poverty. A 1999 study by Franklin Gilliam examined people's attitudes on race, gender, and the media. The experiment showed an 11-minute news clip, with a welfare story embedded at some point, to two groups of participants. Each story on welfare had a different recipient—one was a white woman and the other was a black woman. The results showed that people were extremely accurate in their recall of the race and gender of the black female welfare recipient in comparison to those who saw the story with the white female welfare recipient. This outcome confirmed that this unbalanced narrative of gender and race had become a standard cultural bias and that Americans often made implicit associations between race, gender, and poverty.
- Criticisms of welfare
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Welfare's effect on poverty
- Welfare fraud
- Douglas, Susan; Michaels, Meredith W. (2005). The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. Free Press. p. 178. ISBN 0-7432-6046-5.
- Hays, Sharon (2004). Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0-19-517601-4.[page needed]
- Gilliam, Franklin (1999). "The 'Welfare Queen' Experiment: How Viewers React to Images of African-American Mothers on Welfare". Nieman Reports 53 (2).
- Jet - Google Boeken. Books.google.com. 1974-12-19. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
- Levin, Josh (2013-12-19). "Linda Taylor, welfare queen: Ronald Reagan made her a notorious American villain. Linda Taylor’s other sins were far worse". Slate.com. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
- "'Welfare Queen' Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign". New York Times. 1976-02-15. p. 51.
- Krugman, Paul (2007-11-19). "Republicans and Race". New York Times.
- Green, Mark J. (1984). There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error. Pantheon. p. 85. ISBN 0-394-72171-3.
- Miller, Dan (1977-03-13). "The Chutzpa Queen". The Washington Post.
- Fialka, John (1976-02-09). "Reagan's stories don't always check out". Eugene Register-Guard.
- "Bond on Wrong Address". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 1977-03-26.
- "Welfare queen gets two-six-year term". The Rochester Sentinel. 1977-05-13.
- Gilens, Martin (2000). "The News Media and the Racialization of Poverty". Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. pp. 102–32. ISBN 0-226-29365-3.
- Levin, Josh. "The Welfare Queen." Slate. December 19, 2013. - article about Linda Taylor
- 'Bus Tokens and Welfare Queens', essay, Counterpunch