The Return of the Welfare Queen

By Gilman, Michele Estrin | The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Return of the Welfare Queen


Gilman, Michele Estrin, The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law


INTRODUCTION

After welfare reform was passed in 1996, there was every reason to hope that the welfare queen was dead. The "welfare queen" was shorthand for a lazy woman of color, with numerous children she cannot support, who is cheating taxpayers by abusing the system to collect government assistance. For years, this long-standing racist and gendered stereotype was used to attack the poor and the cash assistance programs that support them. In 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) capped welfare receipt to five years and required work as a condition of eligibility, thus stripping the welfare queen of her throne of dependency. Nevertheless, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney resurrected the welfare queen.

In a barrage of television campaign ads, Governor Romney accused President Obama of gutting TANF work requirements by allowing states to apply for waivers. Governor Romney kept the ads on the air even after they were disproved by independent fact-checkers who explained that state governors, including Republicans, asked the Obama Administration to consider waivers so that states could have greater flexibility in designing and reporting on effective work requirements. In the subsequent battle to prove which candidate was toughest on the poor, there was no mention that TANF is largely a failure. While TANF enrollment has plunged since 1996, it has not reduced poverty. Instead, it pushed many poor mothers into the low-wage workforce, where they struggle to survive on meager wages. In addition, many families have slipped out of the safety net altogether, sanctioned by TANF caseworkers or discouraged by TANF's onerous application requirements, privacy-stripping processes, and stingy grants that total an average of $429 per month for a family of three. As a result, only 4.5 million people receive cash assistance through TANF (amounting to 0.47% of the federal 2012 budget), as compared to 46 million people who receive food stamps.1

In other words, the political salience of the welfare queen far outstrips her numbers. Thus, it is fair to argue that Governor Romney dredged up the welfare queen to appeal to white, working class voters, who dislike government assistance for the "undeserving" poor. The good news is that Governor Romney's dependency rhetoric did not work and may have backfired; minorities and women vastly preferred President Obama in the 2012 election. The bad news is that the welfare queen continues to lurk behind repeated calls to cut government benefits and to criminalize poverty. Can we bury the welfare queen forever, or will she always be part of attempts to demonize the poor while diverting attention away from governmental responsibility for poverty?

This Article identifies ways to strengthen TANF so that it reduces poverty, but also suggests that it may be time to deconstruct welfare entirely and to replace it with a more expansive social justice vision. Part I describes the dispute about whether President Obama was loosening TANF's work requirements and explains how Governor Romney misrepresented the changes proposed by the Obama Administration in the 2012 presidential campaign. Part II sets forth the history of the welfare queen, a damaging stereotype that sits at the crossroads of race, gender, and class and that has played a central role in the development of welfare policy. Part III assesses the impact and effectiveness of TANF, concluding that it has failed to lift low-income families out of poverty or move them to self-sufficiency. Part IV suggests an alternative approach designed to alleviate poverty and to put the welfare queen to rest once and for all.

I. WELFARE IN THE 2012 CAMPAIGN

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act promising to "end welfare as we have come to know it" and implementing TANF.2 For sixty years prior to 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was an open-ended funding program that provided checks to welfare families based on objective eligibility criteria. …

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