Over the course of American history, politicians have adopted a clever, yet nefarious way of using racial stereotypes as a tool for political gain.
From the War on Drugs that frames black men as “criminals” to the emergence of the so called “welfare queen,” history has shown us that framing particularly disadvantaged groups as “dangerous” or “unworthy” enables politicians to gain political support from the public, particularly white middle and low-class Americans.
If I had to sum up, in two words, the United States’ racial marginalization of the poor and financially dependent, “welfare queen” is as good and as bad as it gets.
The myth of the welfare queen is still a prominent weapon used today in U.S politics that tends to go unnoticed.
The U.S political system has maintained these false ideas about marginalized people in our society by reducing them to a second class citizen status and enacting discriminatory policies that perpetuate durable systems of injustice within our democracy.
The legacy of legal discrimination persists in our society today as low-income mother’s struggle to gain and maintain financial benefits from the government.
The burden of the welfare queen has become one of the most cutting stereotypes that plagues families across the United States.
It hurts because it has worked in changing policy.
The birth of this political myth emerged after the criminalization of Linda Taylor, an African American woman, who quickly became the embodiment of a pernicious stereotype after being sentenced to prison for welfare fraud in 1977.
Ronald Reagan gave a speech in his unsuccessful 1976 campaign for president that managed to frame poor African American and Latina mothers as “users of the system” without any concrete evidence other than the act of a single woman.
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
One woman who cheated the system evidently became the face of all welfare recipients, despite the fact that white families, typically, have been more likely to be on welfare.
Although it is not entirely clear all of which she fraudulated, Reagan’s intent became less about exposing the ways in which “liberal policies” had fractured the economy and more about turning the white American majority against minorities as a tool for political gain.
Reagan’s attack on welfare suggested that programs such as these, paid by tax dollars, only aided irresponsible black people.
Using the story of Linda Taylor, Reagan labeled millions of America’s poorest people as “deceitful” and funneled the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be terminated.
This image of widespread and unbridled welfare fraud allowed Reagan to convince voters to support his cuts to public assistance spending.
This was not the first instance that an American politician used self serving tactics to turn the public against the poor and displaced.
Much like the coined term “American Negro” the welfare queen became a convenient target for hate by simply framing Linda Taylor as the stereotypical lazy, black con artist.
Despite the fact that Reagan gave Taylor the most critical identity, the welfare queen stemmed from a longer and much deeper racialized history of prejudice and animosity toward families receiving welfare benefits in the United States.
This inequitable idea of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” became a political weapon that Reagan introduced into U.S politics that his forerunners would all sustain.
Today, over 20 years after the implementation of Bill Clinton era welfare reform, the unwarranted stigma against poor women of color remains.
This telling of the “welfare queen” as users of the system continues to influence public policy by distinguishing between those who are “deserving” of support and those who are not.
President Donald Trump’s administrative budget cuts are now putting Americans on edge, especially those who rely heavily on public assistance programs.
Trump’s budget will potentially force millions of poor people off of food stamps and benefit programs such as Medicaid.
A recent article from Time Magazine states:
Cuts include a whopping $193 billion from food stamps over the coming decade — a cut of more than 25 per cent — implemented by cutting back eligibility and imposing additional work requirements, according to talking points circulated by the White House. The program presently serves about 42 million people.
Among these 42 million people, is my own mother, a 59 year old, single Latina mother suffering from chronic kidney disease, who directly relies on welfare benefits.
Being raised by a single mother on public assistance has allotted me with a perspective that a majority of politicians and policy makers could never understand.
It is clear that public policy continues to reflect the interests of the elite rather than the needs of the poor.
Such conditions only further the economic and racial divide in the U.S and perpetuates existing stereotypes about families and women receiving government assistance.
Although my mother has been on welfare my whole life, she is not your stereotypical “welfare queen.”
She is not Linda Taylor nor is she a “user of the system.”
My mother is a woman who managed to raise six children on her own with the little help she did receive from programs like Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Yet, our story will remain under the scrutiny of those who may have never had to step foot in a welfare office.
Ending the myth of the welfare queen within public policy means acknowledging how we manifest these stereotypes in our everyday lives.
It means recognizing that one person’s mistake cannot suddenly be the burden of others that look like them.
For far too long, our society has reduced people of color to a second class citizen status, resulting in the unremitting struggle to overcome the burden of such baseless conclusions.
We must overcome this myth by restructuring and developing policy around families as they are—not who society deems them to be.
Rather than stigmatizing recipients of public assistance programs, the government must strengthen the ways in which these programs respond to critical social and economic needs.
Even more so, we must acknowledge how failure to reconcile the racial discrimination of our nation’s past infringes our ability to ensure that all Americans have the dignity they deserve in the present.
We can fight against this stigma by advocating for the full participation of all Americans our society and the economy.
Instead of dwelling on individual failures or mistakes, we should be asking ourselves how we got here and how we can move towards a more equitable society.
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Cover photo credit: U.S. Army