In the context of "Billionaire's America", a "welfare queen" is a derogatory term used in the United States to refer to women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment, or manipulation. Reporting on welfare fraud began during the early 1960s, appearing in general-interest magazines such as Readers Digest. The term originates from media reporting in 1974, and was popularized by Ronald Reagan, beginning with his 1976 presidential campaign. It shows how attention is diverted away from the most wealthy 1% in society, the elite, towards the dispossessed, further widening the inequality gap (see: inheritance, and meritocracy).
Since then, the phrase "welfare queen" has remained a stigmatizing label and is most often directed toward black, single mothers. Hence, it is considered racist by many. Although women in the U.S. could no longer stay on welfare indefinitely after the federal government launched the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in 1996, the term remains a trope in the American dialogue on poverty and negatively shapes welfare policies and outcomes for these families.
The idea of welfare fraud goes back to the early-1960s, when the majority of known offenders were male. Despite this, many journalistic exposés were published at the time on those who would come to be known as welfare queens. Readers Digest and Look magazine published sensational stories about mothers gaming the system.
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. Taylor was ultimately charged with committing $8,000 in fraud and having four aliases. She was convicted in 1977 of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases and was sentenced to two to six years in prison. During the same decade, Taylor was investigated for alleged kidnapping and baby trafficking, and is suspected of multiple murders, but was never charged.
She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she’s 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 alone is over $150,000.— Ronald Reagan, Jan 1976, Asheville N.C Campaign Trail Speech, "‘Welfare Queen’ Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign" New York Times, Feb 15, 1976
Used to illustrate his criticisms of social programs in the United States, Reagan employed the trope of the "Welfare Queen" in order to rally support for reform of the welfare system. During his initial bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, and again in 1980, Reagan constantly made reference to the "Welfare Queen" at his campaign rallies. 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 parasites, draining society of valuable resources while engaging in self damaging behavior. Despite these early appearances of the "Welfare Queen" icon, stories about able-bodied men collecting welfare continued to dominate discourse until the 1970s, at which point women became the main focus of welfare fraud stories.
In political discourse
The term "welfare queen" became a catchphrase during political dialogue of the 1980s and 1990s. 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 with the belief that welfare discouraged self-reliance. Despite the new system's time-limits, the welfare queen legacy has endured and continues to shape public perception and policy. The current TANF policies restrict welfare support in ways that appear to align with and may be the result of the fears and concerns centered around the welfare queen trope. For example, welfare payments are intended for temporary support (a maximum of five years) and restrict welfare support through work requirements and family caps to avoid the fear of "welfare queens" and other "undeserving" recipients from taking advantage of welfare benefits or from an overly generous welfare system encouraging financial and moral irresponsibility.
Despite the fact that the majority of welfare recipients are white, welfare attitudes are primarily shaped by public perceptions of black people on welfare, which perpetuates racial tropes such as the "welfare queen" and blocks access to resources that are needed by these families.
During Governor Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, he alluded to the "welfare queen" stereotype again when he attacked President Barack Obama by spreading television advertisements vilifying President Obama's leniency on the "undeserving" poor through reducing the rigor of TANF requirements to primarily appeal to a white, middle class demographic who believe in cutting government spending on welfare programs to force people in poverty out of perceived laziness and into self-reliance.
Do you support work for welfare? Barack Obama has a long history of opposing work for welfare... On July 12th, Obama quietly ended work requirements for welfare. You wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. Mitt Romney strongly believes that work must be part of welfare. The Romney plan for a stronger middle class. It will put work back in welfare.— Governor Mitt Romney, 'Long History', Presidential Campaign Television Ad, August 13
Gender and racial stereotypes
Political scientist Franklin Gilliam has argued 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 trope of the welfare queen may be analyzed from the framework of intersectionality to better understand how race, class, gender, and other identities shape individuals' and groups' privileges and disadvantages.
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. In 2016, African Americans made up 39.6% of welfare recipients, and, in 2015, African Americans made up 13.3% of the United States population. According to the United States Census, "In 2019, the share of Blacks in poverty was 1.8 times greater than their share among the general population. Blacks represented 13.2% of the total population in the United States, but 23.8% of the poverty population." Van Doorn states that the media repeatedly shows a relationship between lazy, black, and poor suggesting why some Americans are opposed to welfare programs.
From the 1970s onward, women became the predominant face of poverty. In a 1999 study by Franklin Gilliam that examined people's attitudes on race, gender, and the media, an eleven-minute news clip featuring one of two stories on welfare was shown 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.
Furthermore, research conducted by Jennifer L. Monahan, Irene Shtrulis, and Sonja Givens on the transference of media images into interpersonal contexts reveal similar results. The researchers found that "Specific stereotype portrayals of African American women were hypothesized to produce stereotype-consistent judgments made of a different African American woman"
Additionally, some believe that black single women on welfare are irresponsible in their reproductive decisions and may continue to have children to reap welfare benefits. However, as analyzed from the United States General Accounting office data, there is no greater likelihood of these occurrences with women on welfare.
The "welfare queen" stereotype is driven by the false and racist beliefs that places the blame of the circumstances of poor black single mothers as the result of their own individual issues, bringing forward racial tropes such as their promiscuity, lack of structure and morals, and avoidance of work. With primary narratives regarding poverty being driven by the myth of the meritocracy, or in other words, of the ideologies that are centered in self-reliance and hard work being enough to pull oneself out of poverty, the "welfare queen" trope illustrates the result of adding racial and gender dimensions to these inaccurate claims. In addition to work ethic, family values, such as a heteronormative, working, two-parent household and having children only when married, are seen as the cultural standard. As a result, deviations from this ideal constitute a lower social value. By stereotyping single black mothers as "welfare queens," the interpersonal, structural, and institutional barriers that prevent adequate resources and opportunities for them which lead to or reinforce poverty are not addressed. Instead, the blame goes towards the perceived cultural or personal "inferiority" of the women and their "dysfunctional" families, further harming their chances of poverty reduction and the expansion of their capabilities.
Impact of the stereotype
In the 1990s, partly due to widespread belief in the "welfare queen" stereotype, twenty-two American states passed laws that banned increasing welfare payments to mothers after they had more children. In order to receive additional funds after the birth of a child, women were required to prove to the state that their pregnancies were the result of contraceptive failure, rape, or incest. Between 2002 and 2016, these laws were repealed in seven states. California State Senator Holly Mitchell said at the time of the repeal of California's law, “I don’t know a woman—and I don’t think she exists—who would have a baby for the sole purpose of having another $130 a month.”
The "welfare queen" stereotype also affects the attitudes and policies of the welfare system on poor black single mothers. Champlin argues that the current welfare system punishes poor single mothers by not providing adequate access to contraceptives or abortions, if a woman does not wish to get pregnant, or having family caps that limit welfare benefits for women with children. It seems that regardless of whether a woman chooses to have children or not, her capabilities in achieving those desires are severely restricted by the policies and attitudes of the welfare system, which places the blame of poverty on the women and reinforces the cycle of poverty. Welfare benefits have been used as a tool for reproductive oppression and prevent their autonomy over their bodies. The reproductive oppression is partially rooted in the beliefs that having children outside of a marriage results the reliance on welfare and additional children that will continue the culture of poverty. These limitations in black single mothers' reproductive rights as requirements for welfare follows a theme of the social control of the poor, specifically where the reproduction of "fit" or "unfit" groups are controlled by those in power who deem minoritized groups, who do not follow a white, heteronormative ideal, as substandard and less fit to have reproductive autonomy.
This racial trope causes feelings of resentment against black families by portraying single parent families or non-normative households as those who unfairly take advantage of the welfare system, which leads to policies and practices that result in the inadequate provision of resources to the families. Consequently, these families are stuck in a state of poverty and are further stigmatized. The reduction of their welfare safety net is rooted in the racially-based vilification of the mothers and further harms the children of these families as a result, despite the original intentions of welfare policies being to assist the children.
As stated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services website, the goals of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program include reducing "out-of wedlock pregnancies" and encouraging "two-parent families" and self-reliance. The stereotype of the welfare queen appears to run counter to these ideals: the portrayal of a single, unemployed woman with a lack of procreative and financial responsibility and an overreliance on government benefits. As a result, some authors argue that current welfare policies are shaped by the desire to punish these "undeserving" recipients, rather than welfare's goal of supporting the wellbeing of mothers and their children. Additionally, the trope of the welfare queen also shaped other policies such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Act of 1996 by enforcing patriarchal, heteronormative ideals as the moral gold standard for tackling poverty and the "culture" of poverty and by situating black single mothers as "deviants" from the ideal mothering figure.
The stereotype of the welfare queen, along with other black tropes such as the "Jezebel", "Mammies, and "matriarchs," are reflected in the attitudes of welfare care workers, positioning of welfare clients, and the talks between them. Overall, these tropes result in negative interactions between the welfare recipentants and the caseworkers. For example, some caseworkers viewed the mothers as sexually irresponsible, negligent, or entitled, leading some to talk to mothers attempting to seek welfare in a degrading or patronizing way.
Some scholars argue against the welfare requirement of having single mothers work by posing the question of why there is a greater focus on ensuring that single mothers contribute to the workforce rather than them having the time and resources to support and care for their children. Roberts and others point to one of the reasons being the devaluation of maternal work, particularly surrounding black single mothers. They explain that, due to society's perception of black single mothers as "unfit" for mothering or as deviations from the ideal maternal figure in a 2-parent, heteronormative family structure, the importance of black mothering is often neglected and undervalued, resulting in separating black mothers from their children in requiring them to participate in the workforce. This reflects similar themes from slavery, where enslaved mothers were often forced to be apart from their children in order to serve their enslavers' labor needs. Additionally, in requiring mothers to work, discussions about their children and their wellbeing are lost from the focus of these conversations. Instead, they are positioned as not a priority, as compared to the productivity required from their mothers, and their wellbeing is at the expense of these work requirements for their caregivers. Roberts argues that this implies that society does not place value in the children of mothers on welfare and the potential for their growth and development. Rather, these children are seen as already lost in what society deems valuable. They are not viewed as being worthwhile to be invested in and that they will likely to grow up and perpetuate the same moral "deviance" and culture of poverty as their mothers.
Movements for welfare reform and destigmatization
In the 1960s, black and female led movements for adequate welfare benefits and a resistance against negative stereotypes started to be seen throughout the United States in local and community contexts. By organizing political demonstrations, creating welfare resource guides, advocating against restrictive welfare requirements (such as a disqualification for welfare benefits if there was an adult male figure in the household), and challenging the idea of a heteronormative, two-parent family structure being the gold standard for a functional and self-reliant household, these women (who referred to themselves as mothers to highlight the value of their labor at home) aimed to provide greater autonomy and reduce stigmatization for mother welfare-recipients. They also argued against the control of female reproduction through welfare, that all women should have the choice whether or not to use birth control and that welfare support should not be contingent on how "deserving" the mothers were based on their choices.
Some authors have also argued that the construction of the strong black woman image, one that portrays black mothers as resilient leaders of their household, stemmed from the desire of black women to resist and reject the welfare queen trope.
In a study that interviewed 60 middle to high-income black mothers, many of the mothers expressed ways they tried to counter the stereotype of the welfare queen that may be placed on them by others. They would emphasize their educational backgrounds, mention their husbands, and dress to signal their belonging with the other white mothers to show that they did not fit the welfare queen stereotype.
- Dog-whistle politics
- Feminization of poverty
- Le bruit et l'odeur
- Media hype
- Stereotypes of African Americans
- Criticisms of welfare
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Welfare's effect on poverty
- Welfare fraud
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