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A welfare queen is a pejorative phrase used in the United States to refer to people 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 when he described a "welfare queen" from Chicago's South Side.
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 illegitimate children, 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 "welfare queen" is most often associated with Ronald Reagan who brought the idea to a national audience. 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."
Critics Paul Krugman and Mark J. Green have argued that the story grossly exaggerates minor cases of welfare fraud. Reagan’s use of the term was related to a growing unease among New Right politicians about the expansion of the welfare apparatus. Touching on the cornerstones of American political philosophy (individualism and egalitarianism), the New Right sought to form a top-down coalition with big business and white working-class voters to undo the popular Great Society programs of the 1960s.
"He specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting… And because his ‘examples’ of welfare queens drew on existing stereotypes of welfare cheats and resonated with news stories about welfare fraud, they did indeed gain real traction."
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 its roots in both race and gender:
Political scientist Martin Gilens found that the public dramatically overestimates the number of African-Americans in poverty because of media trends in the portrayal of poverty shifted focus on poverty from white Appalachian farmers and factory closings during the 1960s to a more racially divisive image following civil unrest in major US cities. By 1973, 75% of magazine pictures featured African Americans (12.8% of US population) as the face of welfare since they make 35% of welfare recipients.
From the 1970s onwards, women became the predominant face of poverty. A 1999 study by Franklin Gilliam examined the intersection of people's attitudes on race, gender, and the media. The experiment showed an 11 min news clip, with a welfare story embedded at some point in the clip, to two groups of participants. Each welfare clip had a different recipient — one with a white woman and the other with 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, confirming that the gendered and racial narrative had entered common knowledge and that implicit associations were often made.
See also 
- Criticisms of welfare
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food Stamps
- 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).
- "'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.
- 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.
- http://www.stormingcaesarspalace.com[dead link] Storming Caesar's Palace], 1971 demonstration and community organizing by Las Vegas welfare mothers
- 'Bus Tokens and Welfare Queens', essay, Counterpunch