February 25, 2020

The Myth of the Welfare Queen

““No one’s life lends itself to simple lessons and easy answers,” Josh Levin writes in the opening pages of his new book The Queen, and Linda Taylor’s “was more complicated than most.” As his book goes on to prove, that is in many ways an understatement. Linda Taylor may not be a household name, but anyone in this country is likely familiar with a different moniker she was given: the welfare queen.

As Ronald Reagan and other politicians ginned up anti-government and anti-poor resentment in the 1970s and ’80s, the welfare queen stood in for the idea that black people were too lazy to work, instead relying on public benefits to get by, paid for by the rest of us upstanding citizens. She was promiscuous, having as many children as possible in order to beef up her benefit take. It was always a myth—white people have always made up the majority of those receiving government checks, and if anything, benefits are too miserly, not too lavish. But it was a potent stereotype, which helped fuel a crackdown on the poor and a huge reduction in their benefits, and it remains powerful today.

In fact, the welfare queen trope has made a comeback in our current politics. It appeared when former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan decried inner city residents “not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work.” It courses through President Trump’s rhetoric as he’s pushed for work requirements in a variety of public programs, arguing, “We must reform our welfare system so that it does not discourage able-bodied adults from working.””

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