One of the clearest ways we see structural racism play out is in our economic policies. A favorite of dog-whistle politicians, one particular stereotype has demonized Black Americans – and Black women in particular – for far too long.
At its core, the welfare queen myth shapes who we believe is deserving and fully human, and who is not. It reinforces toxic ideology that places the onus of poverty solely on an individual, rather than examining and acknowledging the societal and political decisions that force a person into poverty in the first place. It gives us permission to continue to blame black women for their circumstances, pushing the belief that they must be controlled and taught how to act right. It absolves our collective guilt and responsibility to implement changes to systems and policies.
The myth has shifted over time to meet specific political uses but has two interrelated threads. On one hand, there is a long-standing belief that black women are solely workers, and nothing else. Ironically, we push black women into low-wage work like service and care work, but our policy-makers continue to enact policies that divorce black women from being mothers and caretakers—tearing away their full humanity.
On the other hand, the welfare queen myth denounces poor black mothers as irresponsible and dysfunctional parents, which puts them at risk of becoming entangled in the criminal legal system—a system that treats black women as disposable. Research shows that policing of black women is largely predicated on a stereotype of black mothers as negligent parents. This thinking has been used strategically by politicians on the left and right to stoke white resentment and cut and demonize public assistance programs—despite the fact that white Americans are, and always have been, the biggest beneficiaries of welfare programs. Such stereotypes also play a role in the increase in the rate of incarceration for black millennial women.
Now, in the throes of a global health crisis when a thriving public assistance system is needed most, we are left with a crumbling, shame-inducing, paternalistic social safety net. Meanwhile, our politicians in Washington are unable to pass any meaningful Covid-19 relief policy that reaches our most marginalized. We don’t have to look much further than the welfare queen myth to understand why.
We’ve permanently cemented shame into the idea of needing help—particularly when it’s about needing help from the government—because we’ve made the face of poverty the welfare queen. We choose to amplify and buy into this narrative because, quite frankly, it’s convenient and maintains the status quo.
A reading list to accompany the “Killer Stereotype” mini-documentary:
- “The Myth of the ‘Welfare Queen’ Endures, and Children Pay the Price” by Dahleen Glanton
Glanton examines how the welfare queen stereotype influenced House Republicans to introduce stricter work requirements for SNAP. The program already had work stipulations, so the new proposals would most likely be more harmful to SNAP’s biggest group of beneficiaries: children.
- “The Myth and Reality of the Welfare Queen” by Jeff Nilsson
Nilsson investigates the history of safety net programs and the apprehension over fraud. Several states claimed to have multiple women who were taking advantage of the system in some way, but couldn’t ever provide any proof to back up these assertions. Regardless of their lack of information, many policies and restrictions were introduced as a result.
- “COVID-19 and Welfare Queens” by Scott W. Stern
Stern’s article connects Republicans’ fixation with the myth of the welfare queen and our current pandemic. He documents the change of how the welfare system was perceived when it was first created versus now. The use of the label “welfare queen” leads the public to be in favor of cuts to welfare.
- “The Rise and Reign of the Welfare Queen” by Rachel Black and Aleta Sprague
Black and Sprague discuss the history of welfare and how the welfare queen myth has influenced its legislation. The Great Migration of black Americans from the south to the north saw them gain access to welfare for the first time. This began hostility towards the program. Black and Sprague link these early sentiments to the current sanctions and surveillance which bolsters the public’s association with poverty and criminality.
- “Return of the Welfare Queen” by John Blake
Blake explores how the three leading Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential election called upon the myth of the welfare queen. He reveals Reagan merged identities of three different women to form the stereotype. He provides history into the myth and gives an anecdote to illustrate the contrasting racial experiences of welfare participants.
- “Demonizing the Poor” by Sanford Schram and Joe Soss
Scharm and Soss argue welfare restrictions come from unfounded fears of welfare fraud. They suggest the poor cannot escape being seen in a negative light due to misconceptions and stereotypes. These restrictions are a modern form of old practices that service business interests, force moral programs on the poor, and aid broader political agendas.
- “Republicans say race isn’t a factor in the food stamp debate. Research suggests otherwise.” by P.R. Lockhart
Lockhart investigates how race and welfare have been linked together for a long time through new regulations proposed for the SNAP program. Republicans insisted the changes were to encourage self-sufficiency, but Democrats and policy experts contend the program already had work requirements. He traces the conversation back to Reagan’s creation of the welfare queen and a recent study examining racial attitudes on welfare.
- “The Very Short History of Food Stamp Fraud in America” by Emelyn Rude
Emelyn Rude gives the history of food stamp fraud and highlights the notion the program is filled with fraud. Rude argues while there was more fraud in the past, it was sensationalized by myths like the welfare queen. Since the 1980s, welfare fraud has been declining and continues to do so.
- “The Mothers Who Fought To Radically Reimagine Welfare” by Gene Demby
Demby analyzes how black women became the face of welfare despite the program hurdles they face to access it. She traces the history of black women’s relationship to welfare to Reagan’s creation of the myth of the welfare queen. She also explores reforms that black women have tried to make to the system.
- “Just How Wrong Is Conventional Wisdom About Government Fraud?” by Eric Schnurer
Schnurer reflects on his work with Louisiana’s “Road Home” program to aid homeowners impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Schnurer noticed a preoccupation with safeguarding against fraud by tenants. Upon further research, he argues most of the fraud was committed by officials at government agencies and charities. These individuals were able to receive relief much quicker than low-income tenants.
- “After all these years, ‘welfare reform’ is the same racist dog whistle it always was” by Jared Bernstein
Bernstein scrutinizes the coded, racist language used in discussions around welfare reform. He explains why these talks aren’t based on any real needs and are emblematic of dog-whistle politics.
- “The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the ‘welfare queen’ by Kate Donald
Donald asserts governments create social policy based on misrepresentations and stereotypes about poor people. She argues women suffer the most from these policies.
- Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty by Kaaryn S. Gustafson
Gustafson ponders the changes in welfare policy due to misconceptions of excessive fraud. This has led to the welfare system and the criminal justice system becoming more connected. She endeavors to illustrate reality through history, social construction, and personal accounts.
- The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen by Ange-Marie Hancock
Hancock dissects the myth of the welfare queen and how it factors into welfare reform policy. These policies in turn helped initiate politics of disgust based in misperceptions of race, class, and gender.
- The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth by Josh Levin
Levin’s book chronicles “welfare queen” Linda Taylor’s life and crimes. He aims to show her as a real person and address how her circumstances influenced her life.