Welfare Queen

welfare queen by david klein

A welfare queen is a pejorative phrase used in the United States to describe people who are accused of collecting excessive welfare payments through fraud or manipulation. Reporting on welfare fraud began during the early 1960s, appearing in general interest magazines such as ‘Readers Digest.’

The term entered the American lexicon during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign when he described a ‘welfare queen’ from Chicago’s South Side. Since then, it has become a stigmatizing label placed on recidivist poor mothers, with studies showing that it often carries gendered and racial connotations. Although American women can no longer stay on welfare indefinitely due to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the term continues to shape American dialogue on poverty.

The idea of welfare fraud goes back to the early-1960s; although the offenders in those stories were typically male or faceless. There were, however, journalistic exposés on what would become known as welfare queens. ‘Readers Digest’ and ‘Look’ magazine published sensational stories about mothers abusing the system. 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 illegitimate children, using welfare money to buy drugs, or showing little desire to work. These women were understood to be social pariahs, draining society of valuable resources while engaging in self damaging behavior.

The term is most often associated with Ronald Reagan. During his 1976 presidential campaign, he would tell the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud: ‘She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is 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 is over $150,000.’

Reagan’s use of the term was related to a growing unease among New Right politicians about the expansion of the welfare apparatus. Touching on the cornerstones of American political philosophy (individualism and egalitarianism), the New Right sought to form a top-down coalition with big business and white working-class voters to undo the popular Great Society programs of the 1960s.

In response to Reagan’s use of the term, Susan Douglas, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, writes: ‘He specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting… And because his ‘examples’ of welfare queens drew on existing stereotypes of welfare cheats and resonated with news stories about welfare fraud, they did indeed gain real traction.’

The term became a catchphrase during anti-welfare dialogue and eventually became a permanent feature of American folklore. Media hype from the 1980s to the 1990s also aided in perpetuating the idea. 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 welfare.

The concept 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 (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in 1996 and overhauled the system with the introduction of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Despite the new system’s time-limits, the welfare queen legacy has endured and continues to shape public perception.


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