Does the "Welfare Queen" Have a History?
She was a figment of our political imagination -- and she wasn't. Plus: what we're reading, and more coronavirus resources
Do you remember a mythical character called the "welfare queen"? An imaginary woman who emerged in the 1970s to haunt policy debates about how, and whether, the United States government should support the poor?
The welfare queen wasn’t a single mom, struggling to make ends meet and fighting off midnight inspections from social workers looking to see if a man was in the house. Oh no. She was a grifter, using her ill-gotten gains to buy fancy cars and furs, flashing her food stamps at the cash register as she purchased steak and champagne.
And that wasn’t all she did. The welfare queen not only helped to put Ronald Reagan into office in 1980 but also triggered decades of white resentment, bubbling anger about taxes and “entitlements" that nourished the conservative populist resurgence of the 1990s. The problem was: she wasn’t real. She was a figment of conservative political operatives' overheated, racist imaginations.
Or was she?
OK — she was a myth. But that doesn't mean that no one ever gamed the system or that there isn't an exciting history, and a real person, behind the myth.
This week on Public Seminar, we have a terrific interview with Josh Levin, the author of The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth (Little, Brown, 2019) and the winner of the 2020 National Book Critics' Circle Award for Biography.
Here's a taste, as Levin muses on what it meant for a white man to tell the story of Linda Taylor, a woman of color:
It made me think deeply about the story and how to tell it with sensitivity and accuracy and fairness. What really struck me about the power and persistence of the welfare queen stereotype, which was created in a lot of ways in Linda Taylor’s image, was that this negative impression of a woman who as you said was perceived to be black, was so sticky. It stuck so easily onto our culture and our society. It was important for me to think through why it was that right around the time that Linda Taylor’s crimes were being reported, often in the same newspapers and by the same reporters, there’s reporting on fraud committed by pharmacists and optometrists and doctors, and yet no similar stereotypes emerge about those groups, no ideas that these are cheaters and are bleeding the system dry. Again it’s hard to look at that set of facts and not come to the conclusion that racism is the differentiator.
One of the toughest and most moving aspects of this reporting process was speaking to Taylor’s victims. I was very conscious of not wanting to further a stereotype because Linda Taylor did do, if not all, at least many of the things that she was accused of doing. She was a very prolific criminal, and so the truth of the matter is that debunking the welfare queen myth doesn’t mean Taylor was a total innocent. A lot of the people she victimized were people of color. And when talking to her victims, one thing that I heard consistently was the belief that the police didn’t care about their stories because of their race. There was this idea that they weren’t considered important and didn’t matter, and so that was another way that race factored into the story and how I thought about telling it.
You can read the rest of the interview here.
What we are also reading:
Economist James K. Galbraith asks: what is to be done, now that the house of cards that was our economy has come tumbling down? (The Nation, March 18, 2020)
Are voters being cautious on the presidential, but pushing for a more activist Congress? Yesterday Bernie Sanders lost the presidential primary in Illinois, but conservative Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinski (IL-3) got cow-tipped by Justice Democrat Marie Newman. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times tells you what it means (March 18, 2020)
Authorities in Beijing criticize novelist Mario Vargas-Llosa for asserting that if China were free and democratic and had not committed to covering up vital information, the government might have contained the virus in Wuhan. (Hong Kong Free Press, March 17, 2020)
Other governments that lie about science and ignore experts might want to take note of the previous item.
Neil Young is planning a series of "fireside concerts" from his home, which will be filmed by his wife Daryl Hanna and live-streamed. Keep your eye on this page.
Saru Jayaraman and the One Fair Wage campaign have started an Emergency Fund for restaurant workers, tipped workers, drivers and other gig-service economic workers affected by the downturn.
On June 28, 2009, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band the Hard Rock Calling festival in Hyde Park. Issued as a DVD, Springsteen has now released it for free here, with a kick-ass cover of The Clash's "London Calling."
If you are a teacher, you have probably already begun your transition to online pedagogy. The American Historical Association has made this concise guide created by Steven Mintz available on its website. There is also a sample United States History survey. (Perspectives on History, March 17, 2020)
Throw away that dumb curriculum the school sent you. Here is a list of all the New York City cultural institutions that have gone online. (6SQFT, March 17, 2020)