The Myth of the Welfare Queen: How Classism Has Worked Against Black Women

by Anna Gibson

Impoverished Black women on public assistance have long been marginalized and shunned to the edges of society. It began in the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan broadcasted a story of a woman named Linda Taylor, who swindled taxpayers out of thousands of dollars. She allegedly created up to 60 identities, cheating the IRS and US taxpayers out of $600,000 over the course of two years. While this woman was undoubtedly an actual person, her accomplishments were greatly exaggerated. She was also conceived as being the first black “Welfare Queen,” a prototype that would help shape the oppression of marginalized black women even into the present day.
The archetype of the shiftless, lazy Black woman, jobless and trailing five unkempt children in her wake is the perception that the media widely uses to cast all Black women as perpetual vampires of taxpayer dollars. Black women on public assistance supposedly steal money from taxpayers and do not contribute anything to society. However, statistics show that White people make up most of the welfare recipients in the United States. According to the Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series of 2013, it is estimated that 34 percent of White households with at least one child currently receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) and other forms of assisted living. In contrast, Black people make up 23 percent of welfare recipients with at least one child in the household.

We have to ask ourselves, how was this stereotype of the welfare queen perpetuated and how did it become so ubiquitous across the United States? The truth is, Black women have had to deal with stereotypes since slavery. The idea that Black women are irresponsible mothers dates back to slavery, when Black children were bought and sold on the auction block. This makes the autonomy of black mothers a myth according to societal standards.

In her article “The Value of a Black Mothers Work,” Dorothy E. Roberts writes:

“First, workforce advocates fail to see the benefits of black women’s care for their young children… Contemporary poverty rhetoric blames black single mothers for perpetuating poverty by transferring a deviant lifestyle to their children…The forced separation of black children began during slavery, when black mothers faced their children being auctioned off.”

This distorted perception of Black women and their children has cropped up multiple times in history with consequences being as far ranging as the forced sterilization of Black women in prison, completely erasing Black women’s autonomy over our own bodies. It also harkens back to the idea of Black women being lascivious and completely out of control of their sexuality. This in turn leads to pregnancy, more children, and according to societal standards, more money being funneled out of taxpayers pockets.

There are also ideas of Black women “gaming the system” by being lazy, and unable to find a job because they don’t try hard enough. The issue here is ultimately structural. Women in impoverished communities, especially if they grew up there, lack access to educational opportunities. Due to gentrification and red lining, we find that a number of Black welfare recipients are unable to access the resources that will both revitalize a community and help them retain the job skills necessary to completely move out of a cycle of poverty.

What we find in impoverished communities are a number of Black women who work two to four jobs to keep food on the table, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This lack of time limits the ability to actively apply and pursue higher education or at least finish an equivalency program such as a GED. The lack of education keeps them away from higher paying jobs and leads to them and their children being ceaselessly being mired in poverty.

As this issue is both racist and classist, we would need to rework the entire system. Structural issues like gentrification and housing separation won’t get a complete overhaul overnight. Changes could occur if we push education, offering a sustainable increase in welfare benefits for impoverished women who are actively pursuing it. We will likely see an increase in this phenomenon, as Obama recently presented a proposal that would make college tuition completely free for students attending community colleges. This could offer more people who don’t have the means to attend school and break the cycle of poverty. If they do well in school, they will also be able to apply for scholarships to four-year universities.

Of course we aren’t responsible for the stereotypical ideas of Black women being lazy, classless, or anything else. It isn’t our responsibility to defend our humanity or need to thrive in society. These are all negative perceptions hoisted upon us with no real basis in truth. As a society we have to take a long look at the origin of these stereotypes so we can dismantle them and give Black women a chance to lead more productive and successful lives.

Photo: Linda Taylor

Anna Gibson is a student majoring in Journalism at Wayne State University. She’s also a Buddhist who seeks to provide a safe space for the marginalized to tell their stories. If you think she’s totally awesome you can follow her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where you will find her hiding under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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