Media, Public Opinion, and Welfare
Laura Flanders with Janine Jackson and Dan Shadoan
THE 1994-95 DEBATE OVER WELFARE POLICY GAVE THE MAINstream news media an opportunity to revive some of the longest-running and most beloved myths in the misogynist repertoire: the myth of out-of-control teen pregnancy; the notion that the (relatively small) AFDC program is the engine driving the United States into debt; the image of the "irresponsible" poor female as disproportionately black; and "morality" -- not money -- as the media's chosen explanation for the problems of the poor.
Much of the media's reporting on welfare and its "reform" featured familiar scapegoating, but in the wake of the '94 elections some reporters managed to score new highs in the game of blame-the-victim. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, for example, set some sort of record for targeting teenage moms when he wrote, "Every threat to the fabric of this country -- from poverty to crime to homelessness -- is connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy" ( 12/12/94). Blaming poor, pregnant teens is a neat way to explain toxic waste, corporate corruption, AIDS, unemployment, cancer, and crime. But it's also shoddy journalism.
For the record, teenagers aren't the big drain on the welfare program: Less than 6 percent of AFDC recipients are under 20; only 1 percent goes to people under 18 years of age. USA Today printed the data ( 1/20/95), but didn't use the facts to refute the rhetoric. Instead, reporter Leslie Philips parroted the politicians: "Rising teen pregnancies and out of wedlock births are an alarming trend." The number of teenagers having babies has actually dropped significantly in the last few decades: from 9.1 percent of 15- though 19-year-olds in 1958 to 6.2 percent in 1991. As for the so-called "out-of-wedlock" births, to make the figures sound more alarming, news accounts focus