The Myth of the Welfare Queen

A question that persists in American politics is why the working poor remain persuaded to vote against their own interests. While American families are still hopeful the dodgy promises of trickledown economics will mean more money in their pockets, the growing wealth gap hasn’t stopped conservatives from swaying voters by promising tax cuts. In practice, the vast majority of these tax cuts benefit people and corporations with enough money to fund political campaigns, not the working poor.  To pay for these tax cuts, programs most beneficial to working people are defunded, not corporate welfare and subsidies.  To justify their direct attack on the working class, politicians hide behind the myth of the welfare queen. Corporate power routinely uses this racist, sexist, and classist stereotype to manufacture rage and turn poor Americans against themselves.

Democrats have also taken up the “no new taxes” and “smaller government” mantras to justify their role in dismantling the social safety net.  Under both parties, spending on anti-poverty programs has been cut and taxation has become less progressive.  This two-fold blow has caused wealth inequality to reach unprecedented levels, and has pushed millions of working families into poverty. While the majority of Americans support more spending on “aid to the poor,” this support dwindles when polls employ the phrase “welfare.” The myths and stereotypes surrounding welfare persist, even among those who stand to benefit the most from these programs.  It is time to set the record straight.

1. Welfare does not eliminate poverty and does not improve the lives of the poor.

The concentration of wealth and power into fewer hands is a fundamental consequence of capitalism.  Poverty persists under economic systems that promote wealth inequality.  The claim that welfare does not improve the lives of the poor is false. Welfare masks the true breadth of poverty in America. Without welfare tens of millions of Americans would fall below the poverty line, and the lives of those already living below the poverty line would become significantly worse.

2. I have never collected welfare, nor will I ever need it. My tax money shouldn’t go to a social safety net that I will never utilize.

Whether through earned income or child tax credits, subsidized housing, food, or health insurance premiums, school lunch programs or Pell grants, most working class Americans will benefit from one of the 83 means-tested programs collectively known as welfare at some point in their lifetimes. In 2012, 77 percent of Americans and 86 percent of American households were receiving or had received some form of government assistance through welfare or entitlements. Even wealthy Americans benefit from the non-means-tested remnants of the social safety net. Ninety-seven percent of Americans 65 or older have received some form of government assistance during their lifetimes.

3. The ‘welfare queen’.

When President Reagan first postulated the mythical “welfare queen,” he was appealing to the racist stereotypes and xenophobia of his audience.  These prejudices were also useful during the push for the devastating Welfare Reform Act under President Clinton. The popular perception of the typical welfare recipient is that of an unemployed, inner-city African American.Yet every one of these assumptions is wrong.  The average adult SNAP recipient is white, employed, and lives in a rural, conservative-leaning area. Wealth inequality continues to disproportionately affect African Americans, and welfare reform has only magnified racial biases in welfare programs.

4. People use welfare to buy frivolous items or support their drug habits.

Families receiving welfare live more frugally across the board. They spend less on frivolous items, cars, entertainment, and have smaller budgets than families not receiving benefits. Low income families receiving welfare also spend a significantly higher percentage of their budget on essentials such as food and housing.  As a result, a greater percentage of what they spend goes directly into the economy, giving an additional boost to impoverished communities.

Welfare recipients are no more likely to use, abuse, or be dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs. This hasn’t stopped thirteen states from passing legislation requiring drug testing as a prerequisite for welfare benefits. None of these programs have found massive amounts of drug abuse among beneficiaries, nor have they saved tax-payers anywhere near the millions of dollars those who proposed the legislation promised.In fact, most of these programs have cost tax payers more money than they’ve saved in denied benefits.

5. Welfare spending is out of control.  We spend too much on welfare and not enough on education.

While wealth inequality grows in the United States, welfare spending has not followed suit. Rare is the politician who doesn’t frame any discussion on anti-poverty policy in pro-business terms. “Economic stimulus” and “job creation” are just buzzwords used to mask the funneling of tax-payer money into the private sector, essentially using it to increase the wealth gap.  We spend significantly less on anti-poverty programs per capita than any other industrialized nation, while leading in childhood poverty. A staggering 51 percent of public school students in the US now live in low-income households. This poverty epidemic is reflected in our educational rankings. Our students consistently perform below-average, despite the United States having the highest per-pupil spending in the world.  Poverty is one of the most important factors in determining academic success. We cannot provide children in the U.S. a suitable education as long as millions are living below the poverty line.

6. People on welfare are lazy and don’t work, welfare creates dependency.

The myth of the welfare queen has been so useful precisely because it draws attention away from the biggest beneficiaries of social programs: children, the disabled, and the elderly. For adults under 65 who are not disabled, to qualify for most welfare benefits they must prove they work at least 30 hours a week or are actively looking for work, even though many have full-time care-taking responsibilities for a child or elderly adult at home.  The majority of families on welfare are the working poor.  Most households collecting welfare are headed by a working adult, and three out of four of these households are on welfare because of low wages, not lack of work. There is indeed dependency created by welfare: corporations rely on government programs to subsidize their practice of paying sub-poverty wages.  Again, welfare masks the failings of capitalism. It props up a system that simultaneously fails to provide full employment, a living wage for those able to work, or a decent living for those unable to work.  If there were a severe disincentive to work, it would lie in these facts, not in the existence of welfare.  Generous social safety nets have consistently shown to incentivize work rather than discourage it.

Extensive myths and misconceptions are effective not only at demonizing the poor and justifying cuts to anti-poverty programs, they also draw attention away from the biggest welfare queen of all: corporate America.  Statistics on human recipients of government assistance are easily accessible and extensive, but hard facts on the total scope of corporate welfare are far more elusive.  Some estimates place our expenditures on corporate welfare around 100 billion dollars, 50 percent higher than all means-tested aid to the poor combined. These estimates do not factor in working people collecting welfare because they are paid wages below even the most conservative cost of living estimates, even as corporations actively encourage employees to apply for welfare to supplement their wages. Nor is it counting the recent “bailouts,” tax money given to help big banks and corporations weather the recession, while millions of Americans lose their homes.

So, why is the blame placed on the poor, if not to distract from taxpayers being fleeced by the rich?  Why are tax cuts to the poorest of the poor considered hand-outs, while tax cuts to the one percent are considered “investment,” “job creation,” or “economic stimulus?”

While welfare makes the lives of the poor more bearable, it is not effective at fixing the root cause of poverty.  The solution to wealth inequality is not a welfare state. The only solution to poverty is economic democracy. The only solution is democratic socialism.



Stephanie Cholensky

is currently a national committee member of the SPUSA, and works as a biochemist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She started off as a YPSL member in 2001 and has been an active member in good standing of the Socialist Party USA, serving on the National Executive Committee of YPSL, the National Committee and National Action Committee of the SPUSA, the Editorial Board of Socialist Women, on the Women’s Commission, and helped charter locals in two states.

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