"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.
Since then, the phrase "welfare queen" has remained a stigmatizing label and is most often directed toward black, single mothers. 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.
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.
Accounts of her activities were used by Ronald Reagan, beginning with his 1976 presidential campaign, although he never mentioned her by name. 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. 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 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 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. 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"
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.”
- 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
- 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).
- DeParle, Jason (April 7, 2012), "Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit", The New York Times, retrieved June 14, 2016
- Blake, John (January 23, 2012). "Return of the 'Welfare Queen'". CNN.
- 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.
- Alleged 'Welfare Queen' Is Accused Of $154,000 Ripoff. Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. December 19, 1974.
- Fialka, John (February 9, 1976). "Reagan's stories don't always check out". Eugene Register-Guard.
- "Bond on Wrong Address". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 26, 1977.
- "Welfare queen gets two-six-year term". The Rochester Sentinel. May 13, 1977.
- Levin, Josh (December 19, 2013). "Thee Welfare Queen". Slate.
- Demby, Gene (December 20, 2013). "The Truth Behind The Lies Of The Original 'Welfare Queen'". NPR. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
- "'Welfare Queen' Becomes Issue in Reagan Campaign". New York Times. February 15, 1976. p. 51. Reprinted from The Washington Star.
- 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.
- Bas van Doorn, “Pre- and Post-Welfare Reform Media Portrayals of Poverty in the United States: The Continuing Importance of Race and Ethnicity.” Politics & Policy 43#1 142-162.
- Bas van Doorn, and Angela Bos, "Are Visual Depictions of Poverty in the US Gendered and Racialized?." in The Social Legitimacy of Targeted Welfare ed. by Wim Van Oorschot, (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017) pp 113–126; online
- Givens, Monahan, Shtrulis 1.
- "Opinion - California Deposes Its 'Welfare Queen'". The New York Times. July 24, 2016.
- Adair, Vivyan Campbell. From Good Ma to Welfare Queen: A genealogy of the poor woman in American literature, photography and culture (Psychology Press, 2000).
- Dow, Dawn Marie. "Negotiating 'The Welfare Queen' and 'The Strong Black Woman': African American Middle-Class Mothers' Work and Family Perspectives." Sociological Perspectives 58.1 (2015): 36–55.
- Gilman, Michele Estrin. "The Return of the Welfare Queen" The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 22#2 (2014) online
- Hancock, Ange-Marie. The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen (2004) online
- Kohler-Hausmann. Julilly. "Welfare Crises, Penal Solutions, and the Origins of the 'Welfare Queen'," Journal of Urban History, 41 (Sept. 2015), 756–71. online