03 11 / 2012

6. The Demonization of Women on Welfare

Sensible women realize that the demonization of women on welfare hurts all women.  Largely a racist and sexist fixation of right-wing types (male and female alike), the scorn and lies heaped upon women on welfare has caused and continues to cause extreme suffering for poor mothers and their children.  (The odd poor dad is hurt too, caught up as collateral damage caused by the extremely punitive policies meant to shame and harm women).  Here, I am sharing an essay I wrote some time ago that takes on many of the myths perpetuated about welfare moms.  It is called “8 Myths About Welfare Queens, Debunked”:


We all know the stereotype:

            America is full of budget-devastating welfare queens- Escalade-driving, PlayStation-buying, boozing, smoking, drug-taking women who drink too much soda, eat too much McDonald’s, refuse to work, and spend their entire lives freeloading on welfare while pumping out a new kid every year to up their payments- in short, being lazy, no good spendthrifts, living a lifestyle of luxury while you, the taxpayer, suffer an austere, self-disciplined, and generally morally superior existence.

      How did ideas about poor moms get so hysterical?

     Welfare programs in the United States originated in the 1930s with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and had two components:  social insurance (Social Security and unemployment insurance) and public assistance (Aid to Dependent Children, Aid to the Blind, etc.).  Distinction between different types of women was there from the start:  needy widows, seen as deserving, were given payments through Social Security, while needy divorced and single moms, seen as immoral and irresponsible, were put on the quickly stigmatized ADC (which later became AFDC and today is TANF- the assistance program whose cash benefit component is “bankrupting our country” and generally making racist, sexist citizens positively apoplectic). Monitoring and control of poor mothers was there from the start, too:  until the 1960s, several states dropped moms from ADC for having a relationship with a man (today, several states are seeking drug-testing of welfare recipients).

            By the early 1960s, popular media such as Reader’s Digest were printing sensationalized stories about welfare fraud, but the myth of millions of dirty rotten welfare cheats fleecing the public seems, like so many of our nation’s ills, to have really become entrenched with the rise to prominence of Ronald Reagan.  In 1976, Reagan made a speech in which he claimed a “welfare queen” from Chicago’s South Side had been arrested for welfare fraud: 

            “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting Veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.  And she is collecting Social Security on her cards.  She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.  Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

            This woman did not exist, but with Reagan, the stigmatized poor mother of yore became the greedy, lazy, criminally fraudulent black poor mother of today.  With racist and sexist sentiments stirred, public hostility toward poor moms became ever more hysterical, eventually resulting in Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform legislation- the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or, the War on Welfare.   But the entire War on Welfare is built on a boogeyman- that of the resource-draining, undeserving poor mom.

            The colorful stereotype of the lazy, fraudulent welfare mother relies on eight myths about welfare and poor moms:

1.     Myth: “Welfare” is comprised solely of cash handouts to poor moms.  In fact, welfare is provided to Americans of all income levels and especially to corporations.  Welfare includes Social Security, tax breaks, corporate subsidies and incentives, Wall Street bailouts, Medicare and Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the means-tested cash assistance or in-kind support (food stamps, housing, childcare vouchers) that we associate with welfare “queens.”  Of the means-tested public assistance programs for the poor, food stamps have the broadest reach- some 46 million Americans (about 15% of the population, and an all-time high) were receiving food stamps in 2011.  However, when most people talk about dodgy welfare moms, what they mean is the cash assistance and other meager benefits supplied (sometimes) under TANF.  TANF support sometimes includes vouchers for childcare, clothing, and other needs along with cash assistance, but this varies wildly from state to state (Southern states tend to be meanest when it comes to assistance for the poor).  For the purposes of this discussion, I will pretend that the only type of welfare is indeed the cash and in-kind support given (mostly) to poor moms through TANF. 

2.    Myth: Most poor moms are on welfare.  It is true that the majority of TANF’s clients are women and children, but most poor families never receive any assistance at all.  In 2010, there were about 78 million families in the United States.  Just over 9 million families (about 12%) were officially in poverty, but about 28% of families qualified as in poverty or near-poor.  While some 20-odd million families were poor or near-poor and thus arguably in need of some kind of assistance, very few were poor enough to be eligible for TANF, and of those families eligible for TANF, only 1.9 million were actually receiving TANF in 2011.  Since the welfare reform of 1996, participation by eligible families has plummeted:  84% of those families in need received ADC in 1995, dropping to 52% receiving TANF in 2000, and only 40% in 2005.  Most poor moms, whether single or married, are not on welfare.

3.  Myth: Moms on welfare take up a huge amount of the national budget.  Actually, each year, about 20% of the national budget goes to defense, and another 20% to Social Security.  Less than 1/3 of the $3.7 trillion dollar 2012 federal budget went to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which administers TANF and other programs.  Of the HHS’s 2012 budget, 54% went to Medicare, 30% to Medicaid, 14% to other programs, and 2%, or about $17 billion, to TANF.  Meanwhile, $13 billion was budgeted in 2012 for TARP- yet another welfare handout to bankers that nearly matches that of TANF recipients.  Speaking of welfare handouts for bankers, it’s worth noting that it would take about 42 years for our nation’s 1.9 million TANF recipients to equal the $700 billion dollar handout given to Wall Street in 2008.

4.  Myth: Poor moms spend decades, or even lifetimes, on welfare.  Since 1996, there has been a five-year lifetime cap on TANF assistance for adults.  In 2006, the average length of time families received TANF assistance was 35.4 months, and case closure data from 35 states indicated that less than one-half of one percent of cases were closed because families had hit the 5-year ceiling.

5.   Myth: Welfare moms refuse to work.  In fact, in 2006, 33% of TANF families were engaged in qualified work activities for at least 30 hours per week, and another 14% had some work hours (though not enough to qualify toward the work rate).  Looking at poor families more generally, in 2010, about 32% of single moms in poverty were working at least part time (compared to 17% of single dads in poverty), rising to 59% and 40%, respectively, for near-poor single moms and dads.  Poor and welfare moms rarely refuse to work, but are more likely to be laid off, to spend more time looking for work, and to be stuck in low-income, no-benefit junk jobs that make survival, perversely, more difficult.

6.   Myth: Welfare moms have more kids to get bigger benefit payments.  Contrary to popular belief, TANF families in 2006 had an average of 2.3 children, and approximately 1 in 2 TANF recipients had only 1 child.  Only 10% of TANF recipients had more than 3 children.  The average TANF cash assistance grant is $372 per month (so much for the Escalades and Playstations), and while some states do give larger grants to families with more children, the average payment increases only $80 per child.  Most TANF families (about 80%) do also qualify for SNAP, the food stamp program, and receive an average monthly food stamp allowance of $275.

7.   Myth: Loads of poor moms are committing welfare “fraud.” There is no statistical evidence to support the notion of an epidemic of women marauding as welfare frauds.  In fact, vendors commit a great deal of welfare fraud (and the real fraud game is in the military- perhaps poor moms should get into the defense contracting business if they want to get rich fraudulently on the taxpayer’s dime).

8.   Myth:  Most mothers on welfare are black.  In 2006, 36% of TANF families were black, 33% were white, and 26% were Hispanic.

            When we break down the myth of the lazy, freeloading welfare mom, we find that the real myth is that poor moms are getting help at all.  While longstanding sexist attitudes underpinned the stigmatization of poor mothers on welfare from it’s inception, today’s intense demonization of poor mothers- actually on welfare or no- probably has much to do with our society’s changing economic fortunes.  Over the last 30-odd years, we have seen our standard of living decline, our wages stagnate, our dependence on credit to survive intensify, and our jobs disappear, while the costs of education, healthcare, food, and housing have gone through the roof.  Many of us are only a tenuous thread above the very poor whom we demonize, and may all too soon find ourselves in need of a welfare “handout.”  When the fear, stress, and insecurity of declining economic fortunes combine with powerful sexist and racist attitudes, people’s anger can end up misdirected toward a boogeyman of cheating, lazy, drug-addled poor minority moms.  This not only allows the real “welfare queens” (corporations and the rich) to continue truly wasting our money while ransacking our economy, our society, and our lives, but leads to a hysterical “off with their heads” sort of environment that has real and devastating consequences for poor moms and their children.