Let’s talk about Welfare Queens.
What comes to your mind when I say, Welfare Queen?
Let us attempt to describe one.
A welfare queen is a woman.
She is unemployed.
She cannot maintain steady employment.
She is unmarried.
She has multiple children, from different fathers.
She lives in cheap housing, in the inner city.
She has no college degree.
She is on government assistance.
You see her, with her kid(s) in tow, paying for her food at the grocery store with food stamps.
She smacks her kid(s) in public.
She commits crimes, and goes to jail.
She is a convicted felon.
Would this be accurate?
Let us part the curtains on what you have envisioned. Does she look like this?
This is my mother, Margaret. Her first grandchild peers at her from the lower-right corner of the photo.
A welfare queen is a woman. Yes, she is.
She is unemployed. She is retired now (born in 1938), but she has been unemployed for most of her life.
She cannot maintain steady employment. What employment she had was sporadic and short-lived. Her mental illnesses did not help her maintain steady employment.
She is unmarried. I have never known my father.
She has multiple children, from different fathers. Yes, this is true. One was taken away as a baby. Another died in infancy. She raised one child to adulthood.
She lives in cheap housing, in the inner city. We lived in inner-city Los Angeles.
She has no college degree. True.
She is on government assistance. We were on AFDC and food stamps throughout my childhood.
You see her, with her kid(s) in tow, paying for her food at the grocery store with food stamps. Yes, we did pay with food stamps, when food stamps literally were booklets of paper stamps.
She smacks her kid(s) in public. Yes, she did.
She commits crimes, and goes to jail. She was arrested on felony child abuse.
She is a convicted felon. Yes. Case was in the early 1980’s.
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The Faces of Poverty
In the 1930’s, the United States suffered the most profound and longest-lasting economic downturn in its history. It began with the stock market crash of 1929 and lasted for ten years. We call the event The Great Depression.
Also throughout the 1930’s, the Great Plains of the United States suffered a series of unusually dry seasons. Cultivated farmland, parched from insufficient rainfall and lacking the native grasses that anchored the soil, blew huge billowing dust clouds into the air.
Chris Johns/National Geographic/Getty Images
Thousands of farming families abandoned their homesteads. They migrated to other states to survive, where conditions were poor due to the Great Depression.
Some people mocked these impoverished American migrants and called them “Okies,” because so many of them came from Oklahoma. These migrants were soon the subject of many cultural works. Novelist John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, telling the story of the Joads, a migrant tenant farming family from Oklahoma. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962, the awards presenter noted the novel’s influence.
Photographer Dorothea Lange documented their lives:
In the 1960’s, the face of America’s poor changed from white farmers to one of a “more racially divisive and negative image of poor blacks in urban areas.” By 1973, 75% of magazine pictures of welfare recipients featured African Americans. African Americans, however, made up only 35% of welfare recipients, and only 12.8% of the US population, according to a book on welfare by Martin Gilens.
In 1973, therefore, 65% of welfare recipients were not black. A higher proportion of black people were on welfare, true. But they were nowhere near the majority as the magazines, newspapers and television portrayed them to be.
Why was a higher proportion of black people on welfare? Remember that Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation, had come down in 1954. Slavery was legal in some parts of the Union as of 1863, when Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation. Maybe these events shed some light. But, the fact remains that welfare was accessed by poor people from all racial backgrounds, and there were more white people than any other ethnic group, and predictably white folks received welfare at the highest numbers.
Ronald Reagan used the vivid image of the Welfare Queen bogeywoman in speeches during his 1976 Presidential campaign.
Reagan also described a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps in his speeches in the South. A “young buck” is another way of describing a physically strong black man.
Ronald Reagan did not win that year, but he became President in 1980, serving two terms.
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In the past 35 years, welfare and other social services went through several changes and reforms. Regardless of whether you think such reforms are good or bad, I now present you with the following:
Although everyone is generally living longer (life expectancy is increasing for the population as a whole), the life gap between the rich and poor is increasing. That means, simply, that the rich, as a group, are living longer and longer than the poor, in this country. We do not have single-payer or universal health care, a social service. Many Americans cannot afford to go to the doctor or get adequate preventative medical care.
Similarly, although infant mortality is decreasing in the U.S. as a general historical trend (more babies are surviving infancy), the infant mortality in the United States is lagging relative to other similarly rich countries. Our infant mortality rate is 582 per 100,000 live births. Europe, Australia and Canada ALL have rates between 0 and 500. We alone exceed 500, along with Russia, Chile, and Oman in the Middle East. We do not have parental leave, nor affordable and safe child care, so having a child plunges a family into financial difficulties right away except for the wealthy. We do not have single-payer or universal health care, which would provide affordable prenatal care to all pregnant mothers.
Also, although our country is generally getting wealthier in the historical sense (we are currently THE wealthiest country in the world, by GDP), income inequality has increased significantly in the past fifty years.
That means that the really rich are getting richer, at a faster rate than anyone else. What is the point of that? We all know you can’t take it with you.
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Perhaps the HAVE’s are HAVING MORE AND MORE, and the HAVE-NOT’s are HAVING LESS AND LESS, and we are not all prospering together, as a result of the inflammatory and racial messaging that the media and politicians have used during and after the Civil Rights Era. By tying social programs to minorities, and then portraying them in a negative way, they tapped into racism, and as a result, encouraged people to stand by while public programs were slashed.
And now, we collectively, as a society are suffering together as a result of that dupe.
I know it’s a dupe because I know many people who were and are poor or who may need help. I was one of them, and my mother still is. Did you imagine someone specific when I blew the dog-whistle “Welfare Queen” or did it have no effect? The faces of those who need help are all of us. There is no “other.”
Flint resident Gladyes Williamson cries.
Thousands of Flint’s children were poisoned by lead contaminated drinking water. Flint has a majority black population.
Jake May /The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP
Terri Johnson screams that her in-home care patient is not dead and all she needs is oxygen as she seeks help at the Convention Center in New Orleans during aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Photo: MELISSA PHILLIP, © Houston Chronicle
This was me in 1992. I was eighteen, and had been on welfare for more than a decade.
Photo taken in a long-forgotten passport booth.
Thank you for reading.
–Elizabeth Lee Beck, Esq.