Welfare Queens and the -Isms of Poverty | Socioeconomic Class & Child Development

V. Welfare Queens and the -Isms

welfare queenYou’ve probably heard about the welfare queens who scam thousands of dollars from hard-working taxpayers, right? Reagan apparently talked about one in particular so much that she became a cultural meme. Josh Levin over at Slate actually did a long-form feature on the welfare bogey woman of Reagan’s nightmares, and dug up some interesting facts in his research. For one, the original welfare queen was not a woman of color — she was a white woman who “passed” as various ethnicities at various times. For another, she was well-known as a bit of a sociopath and a con-woman — not your ordinary American. And finally, she was being investigated by a police officer, but the investigation was stopped, thanks to internal political conflicts of interest.

By Dan Piraro

By Dan Piraro

But we’re not here to talk about Linda Taylor, the first “Welfare Queen.” We’re here to talk about why single moms on welfare have become such monsters, and that’s a different story all together.

That’s a story about class and classism, the changing dynamics of the family over American history, and the stories we tell ourselves about our shared history.

In a nutshell, the American family has undergone some pretty drastic changes since the first colonists built their homes on American soil. Early American families were more agrarian/ community based, with the entire family contributing to domestic household production. As the country became more industrialized, production (and men) moved into the public sphere, and women shifted into the primary role in the domestic sphere. At the same time gender roles became more demarcated, class became more of an issue.

Ironically, the individualism that feeds American self-perception has a great deal to do with creating class discrimination. See, under the older community-based models, religiously informed perceptions of the world were a little different. Religious belief at the time said everyone had a divinely mandated role in life, and that earth was like heaven, where God ruled over angels and lesser nephilim. When God put you on earth, he put you into the role you were born to play. So nobles were nobles, and peasants were peasants, and everyone just accepted this idea of a divine plan guiding their life situation. It was not the fault of a peasant that he was a peasant, anymore than a king being a king — that was God’s plan.

Pictured: God's plan.

Pictured: God’s plan.

This meant all the moral individual blame of poverty was absent from the situation. The peasant was poor because God needed peasants for kings to rule over, not because he was lazy or stupid or immoral. So it was seen as the moral duty of the wealth and ruling class to make sure that the basic needs of the poorest in their community were met. It wasn’t a perfect system, and it was just as subject to abuses as modern systems are, but in general people understood involvement in the community to be divinely mandated (for good and ill — this mindset also justified spying on your neighbors in their house in order to catch them in wrongdoing).

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

Cartoon of a lazy Irish hobo.

The idea of predestined class roles is so counter to the values of a democratic society valuing individual effort that it became necessary to justify the existence of the poor. So after the American Revolution, as we moved into the 19th century and an industrialized economy, we start getting these moral judgements about how poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or greedy, or immoral.

In middle and upper class families, there was a shift toward valuing their children as individuals to be carefully cultivated. While this attitude slowly trickled down to working class/ poor families, the reality was that they needed the income their children could bring in by working. It wasn’t until labor laws restricting child labor were passed that there was a large drop in child labor across all classes.

Around the time of the Great Depression, there was a bit of a hearkening back to the original community values our country was built on, as the economic crash affected not only the usual poor and working class populations, but vast swathes of the American middle class. Suddenly, people realized that poverty wasn’t necessarily a personal moral failing, but just bad luck combined with the fluctuations of the economy.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

The Great Depression affected all classes.

Social welfare programs were put into place, and because of the specific historical trends that led to valuing women in the domestic sphere and men in trade/ politics/ business, a lot of these social welfare programs were focused at taking care of the needs of white single mothers who lacked a household producer (man). In fact, the program was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

A mother and her children, Elm Grove, CA, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration.

Black women were not eligible for the program because they had “always” been in the labor force. Not-fun fact: At the time AFDC and the first labor law protections were introduced, most black women worked in domestic labor, which was not protected by the new labor laws. In fact, domestic labor is still not fully protected under Federal US labor law, which is why organizations like the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance are fighting for the rights of domestic workers state by state.

Anyway, the point is, AFDC was an extremely popular program when it was first implemented, and one that primarily benefited (and was seen as meant to benefit) white women and children. Other government aid programs in the past also enjoyed general popular support, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave essentially free land to eligible US citizens (white men). Later, the G.I. bill post-World War II would primarily benefit white soldiers and their families, while the service of Black, Latino, Native, and Japanese soldiers was largely ignored or downplayed.

So when did welfare start to decline in popularity? That would be the 1960s. In 1964, as you’ll recall, the Civil Rights Act (take two) was signed into law. Black Americans — all Americans of color — were now protected under labor law and eligible for the government aid benefits their white peers had been accessing for decades. At the same time, the new wave of feminism coincided with a new sexual and contraceptive revolution, and suddenly, welfare turned sour in people’s mouths.

This was hardly the first sexual revolution in America. We’ve had several — notable tidal moments in the historical struggle for women’s rights include the Revolutionary War, when women increasingly joined political and business matters and looked toward their own rights. Abigail Adams famously wrote her husband,

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Obviously, Abigail’s request was ignored, and women were increasingly pushed out of the public sphere and into the domestic. However, education for middle and upper class women did increase after that, as the new role of domestic centers of the home also cast women as the primary educators and moral guides for their children. Another tide of sexual and feminist revolution, popularly known as the “Suffragette movement,” occurred from the 1870s to 1920s as more single middle and working class women moved into the workforce and changes in courtship patterns altered gender dynamics once more.

So despite the popularity of claiming that modern women’s rights came from the “first” feminist movement of the 1960s, that’s inaccurate. Interestingly, some decried the 1960s feminist movement as unnecessary, since women had “achieved equality” 50 years earlier when they entered the workforce in record numbers and acquired the right to vote. What made the 1960s feminist movement and sexual revolution so different from the previous historic tides that promoted the rights of women was the invention of women’s contraception concurrent with the increasing popularity and acceptance of marriage for love.

Companionate marriage

Victorian wedding portrait (Source: Wiki commons)

See, marriage has also been undergoing some pretty massive shifts since our colonial immigrant ancestors first stepped foot on America’s eastern shores. Marriage started out as contracts arranged between the parents of the couples to benefit the families and, to a lesser extent, the community.

Over time, as parents lost the ability to hold an inheritance over the head of their children, companionate pairings became popular. In a companionate pairing, the friendship and affection of the partner was valued as much as their economic value and social status. The companionate pairing eventually shifted to the love match, which is what we deal with today.

The biggest similarity between arranged matches and companionate matches was that the family was seen as existing for the production and care of children. If a marriage turned unhappy or sour, the perceived needs of the children were expected to take priority over the desires of the spouses. By the 20th century, the companionate marriage was already shifting toward the love match as we understand it, but it was really the creation of readily accessible birth control that kicked off this current movement of focusing on the couple relationship before the parent-child relationship.

By that, I don’t mean that modern parents are selfish or hate their kids. I mean that birth control allows couples the freedom to delay having children in order to strengthen the bond between themselves and make sure they are “set” economically, and to limit the size of their families. Middle class values have accordingly shifted, until it’s become normal and acceptable to delay pregnancy and childbirth until your education is complete, you’ve been married for a few years, and you are set in your career. Having children earlier in life, or before you’re educated and financially set, is seen as irresponsible and selfish.

rosie riveterDuring WWII, women of all races entered the workforce in greater numbers, and although they left (or were kicked out of) the workforce in droves after the war, black women in particular were negatively impacted by the post-war situation.

As noted above, black men generally did not benefit from the G.I. Bill, which led to economic distress for families. The strain of war marriages, enforced housewife status, and PTSD led to skyrocketing divorce rates across America in the years immediately after the war.

Chicago protest of redlining practices

Chicago protest of redlining practices

In black families, the reduced income of now-jobless black women and men led to increased financial strain in the black community of a whole. The increased production of post-war America shined a brief light of hope on the situation, as black men were more likely to find jobs and even union protection.

Unfortunately, union membership and representation was already plummeting by the 1970s. Practices such as redlining and white flight led to the rise of ghettos even as manufacturing jobs and other forms of employment disappeared.

This is where we loop back to welfare, feminism, and racism. So, back up a bit to the 1960s and the Civil Rights Act, which was enacted at about the same time hormonal birth control became readily available and the high post-war production economy turned downward. All these previous factors I’ve described coalesced to create a situation where suddenly the predominant single mother in the public’s eye is the black low-income mother, instead of the white one.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Mother and child, Chicago South side.

Now, welfare still predominantly benefits white people — Blacks comprise 22% of the poor, but only take in 14% of government benefits. Whites make up 42% of the poor, but take in 69% of government benefits. But now welfare also benefits people of color, and apparently that leaves a really sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people. A program that was once pretty popular with the average working American is suddenly increasingly controversial. So … besides race, what’s that all about?

Well, it actually is about a few more things then race. It’s about feminism and classism, too. It’s about the myth of meritocracy, and representing poverty as an individual moral failure instead of a systemic social issue. It’s about blaming poor women for having sex outside of marriage instead of recognizing that our social structures are such that poverty is replicated and intensified from one generation to the next. Don’t believe me? Answer this: What are some of the most popular complaints about welfare today?

The Welfare Queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

Linda Taylor: The original welfare queen

She’s single, unemployed, probably a woman of color, and she keeps having babies to collect fat government checks. Unspoken moral judgments of that description: She is lazy, promiscuous, and irresponsible.

THE FACTS: Actually, from the 1980s on, welfare payments were not tied to inflation, so welfare benefits plummeted. As anyone who’s actually had a child knows, kids are expensive, and $60 extra a month in welfare benefits is not going to help. Also, other developed countries that have invested in their welfare programs have actually seen a decrease in family sizes among the poor. The Welfare Queen is a myth.

The Teen Mom/ Welfare Princess

photography by Joe Niem

photography by Joe Niem

She’s seen as a welfare queen in training, the young woman who romanticizes pregnancy and is too stupid to realize she’s putting her entire future at risk. Moralizers tut-tut over her perceived lack of concern for marriage and her tendency to have several children by various fathers.

THE FACTS: In what may be a surprising twist to many, research is showing that poor teen moms don’t delay marriage out of a lack of respect for the institution, but because they value it so highly. The poor have internalized middle class values that say an ideal marriage is not about having kids, but is about the love between supportive and equal partners. They’re putting off marriage not because they think it’s pointless, but because they want to avoid the failure and stigma of divorce.

Research also shows that for poor populations in American, teen parenthood has almost no impact on their lifetime economic situation. In fact, a study on two sisters — one a teen mom and one who was childless — show that their long-term financial situation was not at all impacted by the presence or absence of a child. Also, many teen moms credit their pregnancy and child with “straightening them up” and inspiring them to leave their wild ways behind and become responsible adults in the community.

The Drug Dealer


Too lazy to get a real job, he supplements his drug habit with occasional dealing and welfare benefits.

THE FACTS: Like the welfare queen, this one is a giant bogeyman. I’m not saying drug dealers are a bogeyman — clearly, they’re not. But I guess black market drug dealing must be lucrative enough that it isn’t worth the humiliation and hassle to apply for and maintain the lifestyle qualifications for welfare benefits. In the end, the few places where this has been implemented (and subsequently struck down), the program showed few results. Only 2.6% (108 out of 4,086 people) of those tested were found to have been using illegal drugs. It actually cost more money to carry out the program than it saved in cancelled welfare benefits.

Welfare Programs Failed

welfare state

We’ve been dumping money into welfare programs for ages, and the poverty rates have just kept rising! Therefore, the programs have failed.

THE FACTS: As mentioned earlier, welfare payments have not been tied to inflation for over 50 years. In fact, measurements of poverty and welfare are too conservative — they’re tied to an equation from the 1960s based on food prices, which were more expensive than the costs of lodging or utilities at the time. An updated equation would dramatically increase the official poverty rates in America, which would look bad for whichever political party is in office. Hence, incentive not to change the formula, which means both the issue of poverty and the social programs with which to address it are working with bad data.

Furthermore, welfare programs have been subjected to a war of financial attrition … Nixon, Reagan, and Bush all made budget cuts to AFDC, and then Clinton just sliced the entire program with his Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) “reform.” Actually, at the rare times in our country when welfare programs have been well-funded, they have been extraordinarily helpful in addressing poverty rates. The implementation of social welfare programs helped America survive the Great Depression, and poverty across America dropped from 24% to 12% when Johnson’s funding of his “war on poverty” was at its peak.

The thing about poverty that a lot of people don’t seem to realize, or don’t want to realize, is that it’s not about the individual. While the economic cycle is an established fact of capitalism, the natural result of this type of economic cycle on the poorest members of society is an uncomfortable truth that many people prefer to ignore. It’s easier to moralize and pretend poor people are poor because they failed in some way; they are weak of character or lack work ethic. In the paraphrased words of John Steinbeck,

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”


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