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Welfare Discrimination & The Myth of the Welfare Queen

How society sees the 'welfare queen'

In short, societal ideas of what is the 'welfare queen' are skewed, and, as revealed in a woman's letter to Ronald Reagan in 1960, misguided: "this welfare situation//robs me of my hard earned pay to support the lazy, shiftless people" (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 756). This letter reveals the preconceived notion that welfare programs are nothing but "robbery," or a way for governments to ensure "an unjust and forcible transfer of resources from worthy, hardworking Americans to underserving, unproductive poor people" (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 756). Unfortunately, this is a prevalent idea to this day. In spite of what we have seen, with Occupy Wall Street movement, with people protesting against evil economic manipulations which make it almost impossible for some people to get ahead in life, the general public still seems to think that welfare systems are only for the "poor" and "unproductive." The main issue behind this belief is that is serves to support neoliberal agendas which promote individualist pursuits and claim that all people can 'make it' on their own, as long as they work hard enough.

The "welfare queen" is a mythical creation which came about in the 1970s, as the US government was, allegedly, trying to cut down on welfare fraud (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015). The image that resulted from these relatively isolated cases of welfare fraud was that of the "lazy, sexually promiscuous (typically African America) women who shirt both domestic and wage labor," and this was an image which served as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the general image of 'blackness' as dangerous (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 757).

Gilman (2014) says that "the political salience of the welfare queen far outstrips her numbers" (p. 248). What this means is that this mythical creature has a lot of power when it comes to swaying public opinion to be against offering justified financial support for people, especially mothers with children, who find themselves in need. The 'welfare queen' is a perfect example of an intersectional product: a 'rhetorical construct' who 'is demonized not just because of her race or her gender or her class, not just because she is single, and not just because she has children [but because] she is specifically located at the intersection of all of those status markers" (Foster, 2008, p. 163).

Welfare & The Legal System

The public's fears of unproductive and unworthy citizens taking advantage of social supports have resulted in "intense state and community scrutiny" as well as "heightened criminalization of recipients" of welfare payments (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 756). While it's not acceptable to send people to jail just for being poor, and while many people believe we should be able to help those who need help at some points in their lives, the governments of countries like Canada and the United States have successfully managed to turn welfare recipients into scapegoats. Poor parents, especially single parents with more than one child, were the biggest victims of intrusive checks and punitive measures if they were find in non-compliance with the rules of welfare administration (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015).

The question that's begging here is whether there was ever a 'welfare crisis,' or was that a witch hunt. In the 1970s, changes in US legislation, including higher investment in social programs, resulted in "ballooning welfare costs" and that meant that more people (from 3.3 million to 7 million) ended up qualifying for social programs and payments which would be considered 'welfare' payments (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 758). This 'crisis' was actually a much-needed change which was brought on partly because of the continuous, intelligent efforts of feminist women, many of whom were poor and of color, to get the state to recognize the need to put in place some social supports for its citizens (Kohler-Hausmann, 2015, p. 758).

How black women see themselves

In research conducted with a number of African-American women, Dow (2015) found that many working-class women of color would never consider staying home and being only caregivers to their children because there is a certain "stigma" associated with being of color and not being gainfully employed. One mother Dow (2015) interviewed expressed worry that African American mothers who made the choice to stay at home to care for their children are "often assume to be poor, single mothers on welfare" (p. 37).

In 1996, the idea of the 'welfare queen' as "a lazy woman of color, with numerous children she cannot support, who is cheating taxpayers by abusing the system to collect government assistance," this "racist and gendered stereotype" was considered dead (Gilman, 2014, p. 247).

Motherhood vs. Personhood in Welfare Politics

The research reviewed shows that there is a bias between what constitutes the 'good mother' for white and/or Asian women, as opposed to what African American see as being required of them in order to be 'good mothers' (Dow, 2015). While white, middle class women or women from any background see it as a question of duty towards motherhood to take some time to stay home with their children, black females see the "controlling images" as being societal ideas that to be a good mother, you must also work (Dow, 2015, p. 37). This societal pressure makes many African American women choose to go to work even when they are single parents and they could collect welfare and stay home with their children, simply because they don't want to be branded with the 'welfare queen' stereotype (Dow, 2015).

Motherhood is a powerful idea and women are still, overwhelmingly under the pressures of being "good mothers," a goal which often involves giving up on full-time work or careers. Yet, when it comes to using women as political leverage, politicians like Mitt Romney have no problems dragging out the idea of the 'welfare queen' as both the bad mother and the bad citizen n order "to appeal to white, working class voters, who dislike government assistance for the 'undeserving' poor" (Gilman, 2014, p. 248). The image of the welfare queen is just another political tool which serves to "demonize the poor while diverting attention away from government responsibility for poverty," and this often results not just in cutting government benefits but also in using the justice system to criminalize poverty (Gilman, 2014, p. 248).


Dow, D. M. (2015). Negotiating "The welfare queen' and 'the strong black women": African American middle-class mothers' work and family perspectives. Sociological Perspectives, 58(1), 36-55.

Foster, C. H. (2008). The welfare queen: Race, gender, class, and public opinion. Race, Gender & Class, 15(3/4), 162-179.

Gilman, M. E. (2014). The return of the welfare queen. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy, and the Law, 22(2), 247.

Kohler-Hausmann, J. (2007). "The crime of survival:" Fraud prosecutions, community surveillance, and the original 'welfare queen,' Journal of Social History, 41(2), 329-354.

Kohler-Hausmann, J. (2015). Welfare crises, penal solutions, and the origins of the 'welfare queen." Journal of Urban History, 41(5). 756-771.