Controlling Images: Welfare Reform, Work Ethic, and the “Welfare Queen”

Toward the end of the presidential election in 2012, Mother Jones journalists released the following footage of Mitt Romney meeting behind closed doors with some of his inside supporters. Listen especially to his characterization of President Obama’s supporters and how he uses the accusation of “entitlement.”

FYI: he’s not just talking about those on welfare and programs like SNAP here. He’s also talking about anyone who gets (“feels entitled to”) money from the government, including, for example, those of us using students loans or veterans receiving benefits.

At the core of Romney’s speech is the beloved “boostraps rhetoric” – the idea that if an individual starting with “nothing” can just work hard and “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” he will be able to “make it”; and that success is so often defined in a narrow, profit-driven way, that is, as the accumulation of private wealth and material goods. Much of the time, the people who invoke a bootstraps story about their immigrant grandparents, for example, don’t recognize that those relatives may still have come to the U.S. with racial privilege, support from family already in the country, political rights, a knowledge of English, etc. (Here’s another controlling image: who do we picture when we think of an immigrant?)

What stereotypes of poor and/or working class Americans does Romney invoke in his speech? How do such stereotypes connect to public arguments about welfare reform?

STEREOTYPES VS. CONTROLLING IMAGES

One of the most pervasive controlling images that exists at the intersection of race and class is the image of the welfare queen. First, let’s clarify, stereotypes are:

implicit biases about how a person’s race, gender, class, or sexual orientation influences the individual’s behavior that become strong beliefs that influence individual or collective behavior.

A controlling image goes farther than a stereotype and its effects are more insidious. A controlling image is:

a stereotype that has become so ingrained in thought that it becomes a means to control those who are stereotyped and justifies the beliefs of those doing the stereotyping.

In other words, a controlling image is one that has a cumulative effect, that we see over and over to the exclusion of other images or narratives, until we internalize it and believe it to be true.

Such images have the ability to “guide behavior toward and from those persons [depicted], constrain what is seen and believed about them, and when internalized, profoundly influence the self-perceptions of the marginalized” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman).

THE WELFARE QUEEN IN THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION

Let’s think more specifically about how the stereotype of the welfare queen is often used to justify cuts to welfare programs and other restrictions on the poor and working classes.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

The welfare queen was coined by President Ronald Reagan during the late 1970s and was based on a specific Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who was clearly a grifter and con artist, suspected even of homocide and baby trafficking, and an exception. In an article for Slate, Josh Levin sums up the power on Reagan’s controlling image, embodied by Taylor, who was tried and sent to prison in 1977:

With her story, Reagan marked millions of America’s poorest people as potential scoundrels and fostered the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be stamped out. This image of grand and rampant welfare fraud allowed Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending. The “welfare queen” became a convenient villain, a woman everyone could hate. She was a lazy black con artist, unashamed of cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.

Taylor’s story was picked up and carried widely in national newspapers, and her story made a lasting impression. Listen to NPR’s interview with Josh Levin on All Things Considered.

POLICING THE POOR BY CONTROLLING CHOICE

On November 1, 2013, welfare recipients saw dramatic cuts amounting to a total of $40 billion to their SNAP (or food stamp) allowances. More recently, states like Maine and Missouri have passed bills that prohibit individuals on SNAP from buying particular food items, including cookies, chips, soda, canned tuna, steak and seafood.

welfare queen before and after birth

And many states continue to enforce mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, despite the fact that such tests have proven to be a monumental waste of government money (typically less than 1% of those on welfare ever test positive for illegal drugs, and in some states, certain prescription drugs found in urine can still be grounds for losing one’s benefits, even if that person has a prescription from a doctor).

According to Lister, who recently published an article in The Washington Post, writes of her own experience:

When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which, by the way, I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times. I have to reveal how much I pay to live where I live, the amount of my utility and medical bills, what car I own, even whether I have a plot to be buried in when I die. I have to update the local office any time my income changes, or if a family member moves in or out, and even when my college-age children come home for the summer.

Why would policy makers and government officials spend so much money policing the bodies and choices of poor people? Why do we believe that some citizens are more deserving of privacy than others, and who gets to determine this?

Last year, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) gave this speech in an attempt to put such cuts in perspective, especially in an age of “austerity panic”:

Do you think you could take the SNAP challenge and eat on just $4.50 a day?

Want to now more about common myths the media uses to undercut welfare and perpetuate those stereotypes of the poor that Adair talks about? Read “What the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Welfare: 9 Myths Exposed.”

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