The Queen is Dead

And by Queen, I mean one of the most enduring racist memes in American history, the Welfare Queen.  The Welfare Queen was popularized by Ronald Reagan in a radio broadcast. The Welfare Queen was a real woman who had defrauded hundreds of thousands of dollars from the American welfare system as it was then, when it consisted mostly of direct cash payments to the poor.  There really was a person characterized as "The Welfare Queen" originally in the Chicago Tribune.  But this person was a professional con-artist, kidnapper, bigamist, and possibly a murderer and was not typical of any kind of systematic welfare fraud by Black women or anyone else in the United States.

While the term Welfare Queen still appears among the far Right, it is probably most often used against the Right, most recently against Trump and against corporations receiving government subsidies.  Still, the image of the poor either ripping off America or being victimized by the welfare system itself is still a powerful motivating force in conservative politics.

The main question seems to be, does welfare help or hurt the poor and the country?  When the question is discussed, the data is often played with in order to skew the results.  It is the case that the United States still spends a huge amount of money on various programs that could be called "welfare".  It is also the case that the classic American welfare program of direct cash payments to the poor that Reagan referred to and that was mostly eliminated by Bill Clinton was probably a failure.  On the other hand, should the lessons of the failure of that program be used to inform current discussions?  Since the question of government aid being misused by either going to the wrong people or not being used in the right way is such a hot button in the current election, perhaps we should look at it a bit.


About five years ago I wrote an article for the blog about my own (inadvertant) experiences working in the context of Bill Clinton's elimination of the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program.  Had someone asked me at the time whether the elimination was a good idea, I would have said no.  But I found in running a job training program in a volunteer service that several generations of people who had grown up under the program (and who were about to lose it) lacked the most basic work skills needed to find a job in this country.  It wasn't, as I first thought, a matter of them not having any sort of resume or job experience.  I found that almost everyone who entered my program didn't know the basics of work discipline that everyone took for granted.  It was not at all that these people were lazy (and I found jobs for at least a hundred and more).  It was that they didn't know how to dress for a job, come in on time, deal with supervisors, and focus on a task.  While I thought that in my program they would just have to learn specific work skills, I found that I had to teach them "how to work" skills.  Once they learned those, in most cases, they were then able to fairly quickly enter the regular work force.  But the welfare system had created a culture that did not lend itself to people entering regular employment.

Insofar as conservatives have pointed to that system leading to a culture of dependency, I think they were correct, at least based on my own experiences.  Whether welfare (or safety nets in general) always lead to a culture of dependency is another question.  

Some conservatives like to argue (presumably for its shock value) that about half the population of the United States is receiving welfare in one form or another.  Others argue that while welfare costs are high, not enough of it is going to the right people or places.  When Clinton eliminated the AFDC program, he replaced it with Federal grants to the states, who then allocated welfare funds not so much as direct payments but as "programs" intended to promote employment and stable families.  These programs, along with Food Stamps and Medicaid, are the bulk of what is going on with welfare programs in the United States.

In the end, there seems to be three especially controversial issues.  First, while welfare is associated in most people's minds with the unemployed, most people receiving welfare have a job (or are children or disabled people who can't work).  This being the case, the welfare problem may well be mostly a low wage problem.  Second, the highest poverty levels are found in single parent families headed by a mother.  This being the case, some argue that welfare is actually a problem of personal morality (and this is why, especially in the Red States, so much funding goes to programs promoting marriage and two parent families). Third, while there is a general perception that most people receiving welfare are (and always have been) Black, in fact the picture is mixed.  Most people on welfare are White.  But a higher percentage of Blacks relative to the Black population receive aid.  Some argue that this is a problem of racism, but the racism problem seems to be divided between people saying that Black participation in welfare programs is an expression of a general racism in the US that tends to lock them out of the regular job market, while others see welfare programs as themselves keeping Blacks as second hand citizens.

My own feeling is that it is all of the above, including the contradictions.  Working poor receiving welfare support are not only paid too little, their wages are being subsidized by the state to the benefit of the corporations (like Walmart) who pay them too little.  And it makes sense that single parent families will be more likely to be in poverty.  But I don't think that this is clearly a moral issue about stable marriage, since most marriages end in divorce anyway and there are many single parent families who are not in poverty.  Two parent families would help create a stronger financial base, but this doesn't mean that the underlying basis for the poverty of many single parent households is the fact that they are run by single parents. Finally, the higher rates of Black poverty fall in line with other statistics that seem to show that there is institutional racism in the United States.  There can be institutional racism, even if with it we see moral issues of Black self-worth.  When I was running the job training program in the hospital, I was sometimes accused of wasting hospital resources trying to train people who were lazy and unemployable.  They were wrong, of course, but it was easy to see how some people might get that impression when first faced with some of the poor that were being introduced into the job training program for the first time and were not trained yet.

The poor in the United States, in the richest country on earth, are a scandal to us all.  The reasons they are poor are complex.  We need to address the complexity of the reasons.  But to me it still seems like the reasons are being politicized in ways that make the poor the usual football of the upper classes.

But one thing is for sure.  The Welfare Queen is dead.


unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads