The Constructed Identity of the, “Welfare Queen,” and How She Affects Welfare Policy
Oral Presentation at California State University Northridge, Gender and Women's Studies Conference on April 27, 2010
“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.”
This famous quote was spoken by President Ronald Reagan during a campaign speech in 1976. You may have heard of the woman he is describing. This thief, this fraud, this parasite, is the very well known public enemy number one, called the Welfare Queen.
Who is this Welfare Queen? Although she is not any one person in particular, she is used to define the thousands of poor mothers who rely on the state for economic aid in order to support their families. The public identity of the welfare queen situates herself in a particular intersection of society that is determined by race, sex, and class. This identity defines welfare recipients as lazy, immoral women of color, with many children, who are incapable of properly socializing their offspring and seek to use tax payers’ hard earned money to fuel a criminal lifestyle. This public identity has been embraced by many Americans over the years, as well as politicians, who use the identity of the welfare queen to establish punitive policies to control the personal and economical lives of poor mothers.
In 1996, President Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity And Reconciliation Act. This changed how much public aid families could receive, as well as the ability of the state to interfere and coerce the behaviors of poor mothers. Some of the restrictions outlined in this article are restrictions on eligibility, the 5 year lifetime limit of aid for any individual, severely limits immigrant women’s access to benefits, and requires that over 60% of a state’s welfare recipients be working. Not only do states have to prove that this mandatory quota is being achieved, but, “…each state’s plan must explain how the state plans to discourage out-of-wedlock births.”
One architect of the 1996 welfare reform, Charles Murray, was quoted saying, “The only way to combat the, ‘culture of poverty’ is to end all government welfare supports, forcing impoverished urban single mothers to behave more responsibly, or starve.” Another contributor to the reform was quoted as saying, “goodbye welfare queen, and hello working mom.”
In 2008, the Poverty in America Survey, administered by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family foundation and the Kennedy School of Government, found that 57% of respondents stated that welfare support causes women to have more babies. Indeed, the identity of the welfare queen is still pervasive today, still causing the American public to be reluctant to pay into a welfare system that would propel poor mothers out of poverty, and feel more comfortable paying for a system that monitors and controls poor women’s lives.
Because all Welfare recipients are entrenched in the stigmatized identity of the Welfare Queen, the state promotes and supports what’s called the, “work first” model of motherhood. The “work first” model suggests that any job, no matter how low paying, is better than no job. This is because of the belief that welfare moms aren’t capable of properly socializing their offspring. This model is contrary to the, “intensive mothering,” model, which is the social norm, and declares the utmost importance of the mother’s presence in the child’s socialization process.
However, poor mothers are actively resisting this model, as well as the stigmatized identity attached to it. There is another model of mothering that some poor mothers have created for themselves. This model is called the, “mother as provider,” model and dictates that any job won’t do if it does not pay a livable wage. These women are resisting the state sanctioned, “work first,” model and are instead fighting to get the education needed to properly provide as a head of household. Currently, a state does not have to support a University education, and many recipients who attend higher education must also fulfill compulsory work requirements, as well as the unpaid labor that is parenting.
I wanted to insert myself into my research because I, myself am a welfare recipient. I had a beautiful daughter, and ended up a single mother receiving no child support. In my own navigation of the welfare system here in California, I have noticed that these sexist, racist and classist policies that govern mine as well as hundreds of thousands of other women’s lives are actually counter- productive. Yes! Tax payer dollars, energy, and my precious time are consistently spent trying to prove to the state that I am a decent human being. Social Workers are paid to monitor me and meet federal quotas.
I feel these resources could be used much more effectively. By examining my own thoughts, experiences and feelings about being on welfare, as well as the thoughts, feelings and experiences of other women in my position, I realized that here exists a dire need for our own voice as poor mothers to be inserted into this system that so profoundly affects our lives.
For my research, I desired to search out and examine the voice of the poor mother. To do this I used my own blog and journals as a source for auto-ethnography, as well as the blogs of other women like me. I fortified this data with ethnographic interviews with additional women who receive welfare benefits.
What I found seemed to echo itself with every personal account of every poor mother that I came across. We are made to feel ashamed of ourselves. Because of that, we often hide the fact that we are on welfare from other people. Social workers have numerously made all of us cry tears of frustration at one point or another.
I also found that we do have agency. We are mothers. We want respect. We want to be successful. We don’t want to be poor. We want our children to be proud of us. If given the tools necessary to succeed, we can, and will. Through many conversations, the reality of the need to form a coalition of poor mothers and poor mother allies is not only apparent, but of the utmost importance to the world.
If what Ghandi once said is true, if poverty is truly the worst form of violence, than the state has the responsibility to correct its abusive actions. These degrading policies are based on patriarchal, nuclear family values and mythical norms that are simply not the reality of many families today.
The reality is that being a poor mother is not by nature a character flaw, and we certainly should not be subject to punishment and stigmatization because of who we are. We have something to say. Listen to us, and we will tell you what we need in order to raise happy and healthy children. We are the bringers of the future. legislators, children, and society as a whole would benefit from our voice.