The History and Myth of the American Welfare Queen

Dayton Uttinger
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Reading Time: 3 minutes

The idea of a welfare queen — a woman who fraudulently thrives off of welfare programs — has shaped US politics for decades. Although people have always detested neighbors that don’t pull their weight, the term “welfare queen” is particularly potent. Despite the prevalence of this term, there actually isn’t much to back up the idea that this “welfare queen” actually exists, despite the term’s rhetorical weight.

Where Did “Welfare Queen” Come From?

Ronald Reagan popularized the term “welfare queen” when he ran for president in 1976. Much of his platform relied on the idea that the welfare state had grown too large, and that people were taking advantage of existing programs. In order to sell this idea, he told the tale of a woman named Linda Taylor:

“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan wasn’t the first to use the term “welfare queen”, or even the first to dub Linda Taylor one, but he integrated it into his political rhetoric. While the figures that he talks about are concerning, they fail to represent the whole picture. Linda Taylor hardly resembled the typical “welfare queen.” She wasn’t a lazy woman who refused to work— she was a career criminal.

Now, to be fair to Reagan’s claims, Taylor did fraudulently claim government benefits. She was also a thief, a con artist, and a suspected kidnapper and murderer. Taylor adopted different identities seamlessly, enough that she could appear young, old, black, or white. The idea that this woman is somehow proof of rampant welfare fraud is a bit much, especially when her criminal past was so imaginative that it could fill several articles and even a book.

“Welfare Queen” Isn’t Just Inaccurate — It’s Racist

There are a few specifically identifiable features of the stereotypical “welfare queen”. She is lazy, jobless, has several children from different fathers, and is most likely black. While no one who uses this term explicitly states her race, the term is an example of dog whistle politics, signaling your meaning to relevant groups covertly. Using the term “welfare queen” creates a distance between those that need help and those that can provide it, and that is best achieved by “othering” welfare recipients.

Frank Gilliam studied media portrayals of the poor and found that media often depicts poor African-Americans as undeserving. In the same paper, he writes:

“…while poor women of all races get blamed for their impoverished condition, African-American women commit the most egregious violations of American values. This story line taps into stereotypes about both women (uncontrolled sexuality) and African-Americans (laziness).”

These stereotypes are harmful, as is the very idea of a welfare queen. The term does not have a solid historical basis and is racist at its core. It ignores the reality of welfare recipients’ individual situations and puts them all underneath a blanket term. But “welfare queen” hasn’t just affected racist preconceptions, but it’s affected policy as well.

How “Welfare Queen” Impacted Policy

Regan’s voters bought into the idea of a welfare queen. In 1989, over half of Americans believed that welfare rewarded laziness and discouraged work, so it’s no surprise that they demanded a reduction in welfare programs. This insistence lasted through Bill Clinton’s term; he denied childcare to former drug addicts or felons, added minimum work requirements, and penalties for violating them.

There are programs for the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless, and many others. Unfortunately, these transformations have not been effective at reducing poverty. Between downsizing some programs and imposing restrictions on others, they do not meet the needs of many below the poverty line.

A good portion of government funds are “wasted” by welfare programs, but this is not due to lazy welfare recipients who refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rather, it’s the fault of bureaucracy. Fraud accounts for around two percent of some welfare programs, a fraction of the 20-40 percent that bureaucracy mismanages.

Medicare and Medicaid fraud is by far the largest type of fraud perpetrated compared to other welfare programs, but it’s usually not the patient that is committing the fraud. It’s our medical providers, either through incompetence or malice.

There are ways to make government programs more efficient, but reducing fraud isn’t going to produce the major results that some believe. While there are people out there that abuse the system, like Linda Taylor, they are the exception, not the rule. We shouldn’t make policy based on a faulty narrative. Welfare queens are not an epidemic; they are a myth.

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