Pimping Poverty, Then and Now
Reed, Adolph, Jr., The Progressive
On May 20, we saw the creation of a new avatar of welfare fraud, a black woman in New York City accused of receiving $450,000 in public aid illegally (through a number of fictitious identities and nonexistent children) over a seven-year period. The story of the alleged culprit--complete with photos and videotape of her being led, handcuffed, to her arraignment--was splashed sensationally over The New York Times and television network news, as well as local media. Several aspects of this spectacle, which seems to have evaporated as suddenly as it appeared, are worthy of note.
For one thing, the media representations update the old "welfare queen" imagery. A decade of underclass rhetoric has melded black poverty and criminality. The "welfare queen" no longer rides, Amos 'n' Andy-like, joyfully in her Cadillac; she is now sullen, foreboding, and shackled, like her brother, Willie Horton.
The episode also highlights the way the news industry and government institutions can collaborate to shape public consciousness. How did the news media get videotape of the suspect in police custody? How did they even know about the arrest so soon?
The incident coincided with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's efforts to install a mandatory system of electronic fingerprinting of welfare recipients in New York. A willing news industry thus becomes part of the public-relations campaign in support of such initiatives.
There is also the matter of definition of welfare fraud. Ultimately, any public policy is intended to enhance or preserve the social welfare. Yet only certain policy areas and programs--usually those that disproportionately benefit stigmatized groups--attain the social-welfare label. When we expand the definition of social welfare to include the billions siphoned off routinely in sweetheart contracts, pork-barrel projects, special tax breaks, and the like--not to mention Pentagon waste and the recent scandals in the banking and savings-and-loan industry and the Department of Housing and Urban Development--the magnitude of the fraud in this sensationalized case scarcely warrants a blurb in the B section.
A one-on-one comparison is also revealing. Less than two weeks after the welfare-fraud story, Representative Dan Rostenkowski, Democrat of Illinois, was indicted for having defrauded the Federal Government of at least $760,000 over two decades. Unlike the new welfare queen, Rostenkowski was neither handcuffed nor denied bail. His situation has been framed in the media as a tragedy as much as a crime. Coverage has devoted considerable attention to the complexity of his character, a humanizing and mitigating focus absolutely missing from the other case.
Discovery and propagation of the new welfare-fraud story stimulate another comparison. Shortly after I came to teach at Northwestern University, I attended a long-range planning meeting at the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, of which I've been a fellow since joining the faculty here. As the discussion among my new colleagues focused on the need to anticipate and craft projects fitting funding agencies' research priorities, I found myself overtaken by a curious sense of deja vu. Gradually, I realized that the discussion reminded me almost exactly of Community Action agency staff and board meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It reminded me, that is, of the mindset and practices that gave rise to the phrase "pimping poverty."
Poverty pimping, generally speaking, was another form of at least de-facto welfare fraud. It connoted the pursuit of narrow personal gain under the guise of fighting poverty. It implied the hypocritical appropriation by relatively well-off people, usually as program functionaries or putative spokespersons, of public and philanthropic resources designated for improving the lives of the poor. It was more or less tawdry, distasteful, and reprehensible. …