What is most obnoxious about the Welfare Queen myth is that it is traced directly back to Ronald Reagan, who was indulging in gleeful hyperbole to outrage his Republican base. It has probably done more than any other conservative talking point in living memory to encourage Americans to be cruel to their neediest neighbors, even when some of those Americans are receiving some form of government assistance themselves. Stupid Uncle Bonzo.
What Reagan actually said, according to Wikipedia: “During his 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan would tell the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side 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.”
The real life inspiration, according to Wikipedia: “In 1976, the New York Times reported that a woman from Chicago, Linda Taylor, was charged with using four aliases and of cheating the government out of $8,000. She appeared again in the newspaper while the Illinois Attorney General continued investigating her case. The woman was ultimately found guilty of “welfare fraud and perjury” in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.”
So one woman scammed the government out of a total of eight thousand dollars and got caught and sentenced. From this one woman’s situation, Reagan creatively invented multiple imaginary dead fake veteran husbands (not true), a six-figure “annual salary” ($8,000 is four digits and not enough to live on for a year), a dozen fake Social Security cards (not correct), 80 aliases (no) and 30 fake home addresses (also no) and so on…in short, he created the Welfare Queen stereotype by wildly exaggerating information about a real person who got caught doing something wrong and who was punished for her criminal act.
Right from the beginning, when Reagan first told the infamous Welfare Queen story, there wasn’t anyone who actually got away with welfare fraud in real life! One middle-aged woman inspired Reagan’s anecdote, and she got caught! She was punished! That fairy tale The Gipper told us has led to a lot of misery, most of it directed at the weakest members of our society: those who are the least capable of defending themselves. Are we a country of unkind assholes who lack compassion for our neighbors, now?
The same people who believe in the Welfare Queen myth also believe that people on government assistance are out blowing all that “free money” on iPhones, fancy shoes and lobster. In truth, the government provides pre-paid phones to low-income people who take part in welfare-to-work programs. When is the last time you spotted a payphone in the wild? (Was it in working order?) The government provides phones to people so they can apply for jobs. It is a bit difficult to hang out around the last surviving payphone in your area (again, if there is one) all day hoping an employer will call you. (What is more likely to happen if you hover around a payphone all day long is that the local police will assume you are selling drugs.) The government also provides phones because it needs these people to check in often and make sure that they are actually applying for work, because if they are not actively participating in job training or trying to find work, they lose the few benefits they qualify for.
Are you feeling the urge to gnash your teeth and shake your fist about so-called “Obamaphones” now? It’s such a crazy liberal idea, loaning poor people a phone to use! It was particularly smart of Obama to travel back in time to the mid-1980s to start a program that helped low-income people afford telephone service. Wait…what?
It probably won’t surprise you to find out that some studies have shown that the “Welfare Queen” story incites racial animosity. A more unkind person might even speculate that it was deliberately intended to stir up resentment and anger to make it easier for Americans to accept cuts to social safety net programs. A supposedly lazy and dishonest blackity-black-black lady, in liberal Chicagoland, claiming dead veterans’ benefits (and more than one, can you believe it?) and managing to bilk the government out of a whole eight thousand bucks? How dare she?! What is the world coming to when people can get away with stuff like that. GOSH.
Except, again, as we have learned, Linda Taylor didn’t get away with anything. Ultimately she served years in jail and paid restitution. Crime did not pay. Gut social programs anyway! Better ten thousand starving children and babies than the chance that one woman get a penny more of “our” tax dollars than she is entitled to…even though over 91% of all government assistance recipients are the elderly, the disabled, children and the working poor (so much for the idea of an army of shiftless welfare recipients sitting at home on the couch, eating government cheese and food stamp-purchased bonbons all day).
O.K. Kai of the 40 Acres And A Cubicle blog comments: “The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Havard University published a study entitled “The Welfare Queen Experiment” in which Black and White participants watched news clips about a “lazy welfare recipient” named Rhonda. Separate test groups watched news stories that showed a photo of either a black Rhonda or white Rhonda for a few seconds. Each group was also given a survey to measure attitudes toward race, gender and welfare. White participants showed a 10% increase in anti-black sentiments when Rhonda was Black and surprisingly, an increase of 12% when Rhonda was White. This suggests that the Welfare Queen archetype and the distorted view of Black Americans on welfare is well-entrenched in the White American psyche. The majority of welfare recipients are non-urban and White. The majority of food stamp recipients have jobs or are children, so comparing paychecks to food stamps makes no sense.”
Let’s get this one thing straight: there are no Welfare Queens out there driving Cadillacs, having five kids specifically to get extra financial benefits from the government, getting free iPhones, and somehow getting rich off “your” money. NONE. There never were.
You’re perhaps thinking of Ann Romney with her multiple Cadillacs, her five
tax deductions sons (who have undoubtedly benefited from generous — un(der)-taxed loans — financial gifts from their parents), and her $77,000 tax deduction for her so-called “therapy horse” … and we know we still haven’t even seen all the tax shelters and tax havens the Romneys have benefited from.