Return of the ‘Welfare Queen’
She’s out there, lurking in the 2012 presidential race like a horror movie villain who refuses to die.
She has 12 Social Security cards, mooches on benefits from four fake dead husbands, and collects food stamps while driving a Cadillac. She rakes in about $150,000 a year in welfare benefits and, of course, people assume she must be African-American.
President Ronald Reagan gave America a sunny “Morning in America” optimism, but he also gave it the “Welfare Queen,” an infamous character who has re-emerged in this year’s presidential race.
Critics have accused the three leading Republican presidential candidates of resurrecting Reagan’s Welfare Queen by calling President Obama the “food stamp president,” implying that blacks live off other people’s money, and by declaring that America is moving toward an “entitlement society.”
Yet few people have examined the story behind the birth of the Welfare Queen. Did she really exist? Why do people still talk about her when welfare ended 15 years ago? Can her story still swing voters at a time when the great recession has forced more whites to rely on government assistance?
For some, the Welfare Queen is an epic political lie. Reagan invented her, and Americans keep buying the lie.
“It’s one of those persistent symbols that come up every election cycle,” says Kaaryn Gustafson, author of “Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty.”
“This image of the lazy African-American woman who refuses to get a job and keeps having kids is pretty enduring. It’s always been a good way to distract the public from any meaningful conversations about poverty and inequality. ”
It’s one of those persistent symbols that comes up every election cycle. The image of the lazy African-American woman who refuses to get a job and keeps having kids is enduring.
For others, the Welfare Queen reveals an uncomfortable truth: More Americans have turned the social safety net into a hammock.
“You hear these horror stories going around that people are buying junk food with food stamps and paying cash for vodka and beer and things not covered with food stamps — that gets people mad,” says Steven Hayward, author of “The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980.”
The Welfare Queen has become such a legendary character in political circles that her existence is treated like Bigfoot. Most scholars say she never existed, while a few insist the truth is out there.
Gustafson went in search of the Welfare Queen and discovered something surprising.
There wasn’t one Welfare Queen, she says. There were three.