The Myth of the Welfare Queen
July 15, 2019 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Reagan invoked the nameless woman frequently...She became known as the “welfare queen.” The term was designed to conjure racist stereotypes of a single black mother living large on the taxpayers’ largesse, collecting government checks while bedecked in diamonds and driving a Cadillac. Sometimes, journalists and political opponents challenged Reagan on his tale. In Jan. 29, 1986, The Washington Post quoted Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill telling Reagan, “I never did believe your story about the Chicago welfare queen.”

But the so-called welfare queen was real. Her name was Linda Taylor... according to Josh Levin, author of the new biography The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth (and podcast miniseries). “Linda Taylor … had as much in common with a typical welfare rule breaker as a bank robber does with someone who swipes a piece of penny candy,” Levin writes. Yet “Taylor’s mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and black women.”

[The welfare queen] 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.”

Previously on MetaFilter: The Welfare Queen, for the initial 2013 Slate article
posted by devrim (57 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just checked this book out at the library--it looks like it'll be good.
posted by box at 7:33 AM on July 15


Can we savor for a moment Paul Ryan, who as far as I can tell has done less than one honest year's work in his entire life, lecturing anyone about "the culture of work?"
posted by 1adam12 at 7:35 AM on July 15 [56 favorites]


has done less than one honest year's work in his entire life

You are welcome to object to what he worked for, but the only way you can believe this to be true is if you dismiss government service as not "honest." Like the majority of members of Congress, Paul Ryan worked very hard (and made sure everyone knew it).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:42 AM on July 15 [12 favorites]


This is just a reminder that Ronald Reagan opened his 1980 Presidential campaign by giving a speech about “state’s rights” at the Nashoba County state fair outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was, at the time, nationally famous for white supremacist terrorism, specifically the Mississippi Burning murders, in which members of the local KKK, the Sheriff’s office, and the Philadelphia police were all involved.

This was in service of the ongoing “Southern Strategy,” which Lee Atwater, architect thereof, admitted was just straight up racism + deliberate gaslighting.

Ronald Reagan was always trash. Racist, callous, selfish trash who’s only accomplishment, besides continuing a war on black Americans in the guise of a war on drugs, or gleefully, deliberately doing nothing as queers died of AIDS, or eviscerating what little mental health care existed so that thousands of mentally ill people died in the streets, is that, for a brief moment, he made comfortable white people feel better about themselves than they already did.

The best possible thing you could say about him is that he was too stupid, and eventually too debilitated by Alzheimer’s, to know how much evil he did in the world. And that’s if you’re being overly generous.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:42 AM on July 15 [129 favorites]


Oh, Code Switch released an episode on Linda Taylor as well
posted by rebent at 7:47 AM on July 15 [5 favorites]


the only way you can believe this to be true is if you dismiss government service as not "honest."

Apologies for making this derail, but Paul Ryan worked for the Republican Party which is inherently dishonest work. Furthermore, his grift was that he was a "policy wonk," when in fact he was not a skilled legislator. His morals and spine dissolved under any pressure at all; he was not even one of those mythical "ethical conservatives."

Despite being a Gen Xer, he embodied the Boomer mindset of being present for long hours being indicative of hard work, and was basically a Potemkin representative.
posted by explosion at 7:52 AM on July 15 [68 favorites]


Yeah, calling what Paul Ryan did in Congress “government service” is a stretch.
posted by Caduceus at 7:58 AM on July 15 [20 favorites]


It's a perniciously damaging myth that politicians can be spineless. The flaw in the reasoning is in thinking that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing. That they're somehow incapable of standing up for the rights of their constituents. This is about as wrong as you can be.

Any politician who is not doing what you want is doing what some other interest group wants them to do. They have plenty of spine; spine to stand up to you. Spine to lie, dissemble, distract, defer, delay, disenfranchise, deflect, and so on.

It's not spineless politicians that are the problem. It's politicians that work against your interests...
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:02 AM on July 15 [27 favorites]


One person abused the system, so OBVIOUSLY that means EVERYBODY else is abusing it, too!

/Reaganlogic
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:09 AM on July 15 [7 favorites]


A couple of years ago, I was listening to The Uncertain Hour's first season, all about the 1996 welfare reform and the history that preceded it. The second episode ("S01-2: White gloves, aluminum cans and plasma") traces the always racialised history of welfare in the United States: it was created for the white widows of WW2 veterans. It was theoretically available to all single mothers, but black women were excluded through the local administration. And it was only after they started fighting against this that the public really turned on welfare.

I've have studied the history of welfare in the English context (Old Poor Law, c1601-1834) and things are often more complicated that that: even in 1601 - or as my friend's research found in Catalonia in the 1330s - there was always debates about the "deserving" (elderly, widows, children) and "undeserving" poor (everyone else, including some of the former if they weren't sufficiently subservient). I believe that this is a perennial debate and likely universal to all social safety net systems. But I was surprised by how very clearly the lines could be drawn racially in the United States.

full disclosure: when Reagan made those statements, I was a "welfare queen" - well, probably only a "welfare princess", given that I was three years old. And I lived the high life off welfare for another 12 years or so: sufficient food, clothes that were clean and adequate, a subsidized apartment (with three bedrooms! though the roaches were awful and we just narrowly missed out on the plumbing disaster that filled our neighbours' places with raw sewage), we stopped getting anemia from lack of iron and my mom could afford to buy us a few toys at Christmas (unlike the year before). We were living the high life. I wish that every conservative politician would spend about 12 years living on welfare, so they really understand the luxury.

/sarcasm.

But seriously: that was in another country and another time - social benefits were (somewhat) adequate if you had a subsidized apartment. But, like the US after welfare reform, the programs have all changed now, and the benefits in my province are now woefully inadequate. Ontario Works for a single person is only about $600-700/month - which isn't enough to rent a room. And if you are homeless, it's cut down to $350/month. fuck this shit.
posted by jb at 8:29 AM on July 15 [53 favorites]


Paul Ryan was honestly working while he was in government, even though what he was working at wasn't honest.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:30 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah, calling what Paul Ryan did in Congress “government service” is a stretch.

In fact, it was largely the opposite. If you don't think a Randian zombie-eyed granny starver like Ryan spent his entire time as an elected official trying to sabotage and otherwise undermine government, I have a wonderful bridge in NYC to sell you.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:36 AM on July 15 [25 favorites]


The Queen is excellent, I just finished it last week. A++ would read again.
posted by Flannery Culp at 8:40 AM on July 15


The year or two as a child when we were on food stamps because my dad didn’t feel like paying even the ridiculously small amount of child support that had been ordered... I will never forget the look of judgment by the cashiers when my mom handed them the food stamps. Never. Anyone who thinks it’s all wine and steaks is a goddamn idiot. Without food stamps, we wouldn’t have had food.

Even if, someone, somewhere, or multiples of people managed to scam the system, the system helped far, far more people than the statistically nonexistent percentage that took advantage. And, at heart, the argument that people were taking advantage is a cover for people who feel that poor people deserve to suffer. They are the people who have had all of the advantages of society, but seek to deny them to others who might need them.

Those people are a goddamn cancer on the concept of a compassionate society.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:47 AM on July 15 [58 favorites]


Conservatives would rather see a thousand people starve than let a single person game the system.

Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.
posted by JohnFromGR at 8:59 AM on July 15 [32 favorites]


but the only way you can believe this to be true is if you dismiss government service as not "honest."

I certainly consider government service to be noble and worthwhile, but where we disagree is, 1, I don't believe that (as others have pointed out) efforts to destroy programs and actively interfere with the government's ability to function counts as "service" for any meaningful definition of that term and, 2, that it's perfectly fair to turn his own definitions against him. Someone who loudly professes to want to shrink government to almost nothing doesn't then get to claim that a lifetime lived at the taxpayer's expense is somehow good or noble.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:04 AM on July 15 [10 favorites]


Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.

You must know more liberal liberals than I do.
posted by clawsoon at 9:06 AM on July 15 [27 favorites]


Conservatives would rather see a thousand people starve than let a single person game the system.

Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.


As a liberal, I am less concerned about people gaming the system than the people starving, for sure. But if we were serving 1,001 people and only one really needed it, that would be worth overhauling the program. We can be practical and compassionate at the same time.
posted by skullhead at 9:10 AM on July 15 [19 favorites]


And that's a great example of Moving the Overton Window all the way off the wall.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:15 AM on July 15 [27 favorites]


There is value in work — work that rewards a person for their physical and mental efforts. Work that enables a person to provide for their family and save for their old age is noble and empowering.

Work that breaks a person down and keeps them in penury is wage slavery. In that context, refusing to be exploited is the noble thing to do.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 9:15 AM on July 15 [6 favorites]


As someone who used to be a welfare clerk (Previously), the spectre of welfare fraud is something I have thought about a lot...

...and the amount of welfare fraud committed by recipients is pennies on the dollar compared to the fraud committed by welfare employees. In fact, not long after I started with the PA Department of Public Welfare, a caseworker in my office was busted for putting $250,000 in cash issuances on the EBT card of a dead man.

To focus on recipient fraud is missing the forest for the trees, but since so many of those in politics banging the drum on welfare fraud are more than happy to use the system to enrich themselves... you do the math.
posted by SansPoint at 9:15 AM on July 15 [38 favorites]


The most widely believed conspiracy theory in America is that there exists a separate, generous welfare system for non-whites or non-citizens.
posted by The Whelk at 9:16 AM on July 15 [57 favorites]


But if we were serving 1,001 people and only one really needed it, that would be worth overhauling the program.

Not only is that not the case, but the reality is more like we're under-serving 1,000 people when really 2,000 people need more than what they can possibly get.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:17 AM on July 15 [23 favorites]


Also, if we're going to talk about the real problem being anyone "gaming" the system, maybe you should read up on the actual instances of the system being gamed. For example, here's a story on fraud in the SNAP aka "food stamps" program (emphasis mine):
SNAP fraud is extremely rare: It was more prevalent when food stamps were actually stamps. Today benefits are loaded onto an EBT card, similar to a debit card, which makes the buying and selling of food stamp funds difficult. In an appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2016, Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors that do occur result from mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers, not dishonesty or fraud by recipients.” She added that only about 1 percent of benefits are trafficked.

Handerhan says that one goal of the ad campaign was to publicize a fraud reporting hotline, so if a person sees something suspicious they can call “professionals who can look into this.” But this “see something, say something” approach opens the door for reports based on (often racist) stereotypes of people in poverty.

And even honest mistakes can force a person to lose benefits. “Clients don’t know they’re breaking the rules, and all of a sudden they’re losing benefits that they’re eligible for because they didn’t realize what a program violation was,” says Handerhan. “You can get punished regardless of your intent, so the idea is really to make sure clients understand [the rules].”
posted by zombieflanders at 9:23 AM on July 15 [20 favorites]


Conservatives would rather see a thousand people starve than let a single person game the system.

Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.


Obviously exaggerated, but point taken. However, I think that the difference would be greater on the belief site: People in favor of less public assistance are going to believe that there is relatively little need and greater fraud, and supporters will believe the opposite.

However, though there's been a lot of public opinion research, I couldn't find any on either of those specific issues.

I support a lot more spending while acknowledging that plenty of payments are made in error; e.g., about a quarter of the $63 billion EITC payments are erroneous (note that fraud is only a subset of erroneous payments).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:23 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


I will never forget the look of judgment by the cashiers when my mom handed them the food stamps. Never. Anyone who thinks it’s all wine and steaks is a goddamn idiot. Without food stamps, we wouldn’t have had food.

Indeed. Our family was flooded out in 1982 and depended on several assistance programs, including food stamps at least briefly, and they made the difference between food and not food, and being able to afford a place to rent versus being homeless. I'm aware of the difference between "broke" and "poor" - we were never quite poor, but we were damn sure broke and assistance programs were the firewall between the two.

And the stigma is awful and I DGAF if 50% of the people on assistance are "abusing" the programs - I'd rather it be abused by some, even many, as long as it's available to the people who really need it than it not be available to those who need it.

(This is not to say I believe that it is widely abused. I just have way more concern about it not being available to those in need than whether somebody's abusing it. Let's focus on making sure everybody who needs help gets it, and then maybe concern ourselves with the other issue.)
posted by jzb at 9:32 AM on July 15 [20 favorites]


Ugh. Getting overly worked up about "fraud" with food assistance is just so petty.

For a long time, I was involved with a food pantry that served people with HIV/AIDS and people in hospice care, and let me say right off the bat that there was always more food on the shelves than what people took home. Food was rotting every week. There was way too much of it.

At one point, I was shopping around for a new client database/info management system for the pantry, because the one currently being used is pretty clunky. It is shocking how many of these systems a) exist and b) tout "fraud prevention" as a feature. Imagine the circumstances that would cause someone to defraud a food pantry by...getting too much food. Imagine being so petty as to try to prevent them from getting what you consider to be too much food. When you've got a whole church full of it rotting on the shelves.
posted by witchen at 9:33 AM on July 15 [34 favorites]


Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.

Absolutely. Though I tend to think of myself more as a "democratic socialist", since I'm more in that tradition than liberalism. I also identify as "agnostic-not-very-observant-Jew-who-is-still-a-better-Christian/Jew-than-any-conservative".
posted by jb at 9:36 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]


Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.

Also maybe I don't speak for all of us* but as a leftist I would rather not have a "system" to game on account of I'd prefer not to live in a world where some people have food and some people don't have food. I'd rather have a world where everyone has the food they need because there is in fact enough food for everyone and it's bonkers to me to have a system that doles out literal human necessities like this. Everyone deserves food.

*I mean, I'm an anarchocommunist so this definitely doesn't apply to everyone
posted by an octopus IRL at 9:37 AM on July 15 [24 favorites]


"undeserving" poor (everyone else, including some of the former if they weren't sufficiently subservient)

Aka "sturdy beggars."
posted by praemunire at 9:46 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


If even one corporation is gaming the tax system, should corporate tax breaks, subsidies, and other welfare be tightly restricted and heavily means-tested? If they use those welfare benefits to just buy back shares and line their stockholders' pockets instead of investing it back into the business, should we restrict what they can use the benefits to pay for?

Just seems like there's a double standard for what different groups get to do with their welfare benefits.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:26 AM on July 15 [30 favorites]


What about the undeserving rich, that's what I wanna know.
posted by clawsoon at 10:35 AM on July 15 [12 favorites]


I would rather not have a "system"

There would always need to be some sort of system. Even if food for personal use is free, we'd need to have a system in place to prevent abuses like a baker emptying the store of flour meant for home use, or teens raiding the egg section for Halloween shenanigans.
posted by explosion at 10:35 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


Liberals would rather let a thousand people game the system than see a single person starve.

Okay, this sounds very pithy, but how is the other side of this even necessary? Just say that conservatives are willing to let one person die in order to keep a thousand people from getting more than they deserve. It doesn't need the exaggeration. This is actually how it works. Either you are willing to trade lives for this sense of fairness, or you aren't. I want that fraud number to be as small as possible, but I want that to be achieved by good regulation and enforcement and, for example, making it as easy as possible for recipients to get information from and provide information to the agencies that administer these funds. But I'm never okay with the idea that some option here might mean that a person would genuinely go without food, or shelter, or health care.

Some people are very clearly okay with that trade-off, and I literally don't know how to communicate with those people. It's a core value sort of thing. How do you instill that in people who genuinely don't believe anybody else has as much right to be alive as they do? If you take people's lives off the table, then you have to make the programs fair, effective, and as efficient as possible. As long as you're willing to trade human beings, though, then it's always going to look cheaper to just cut funding, or throw up roadblocks with a high false positive rate.
posted by Sequence at 10:35 AM on July 15 [15 favorites]


Define "gaming the system".

People don't game the system for luxury. It's necessity. It's program rules that allow you X dollars for food and housing, but nothing for diapers or tampons or shoes or toothbrushes, and if someone gifts you those items you're supposed to report it so that your benefits can be cut by that amount, and if by some miracle you manage to squeeze the budget to cover those things, you're supposed to report it so the benefit can be reduced. But poor people need things that are not covered, so they don't report that they got them, because they still need every dime of their government assistance if they want to, like, eat. And now they are "cheating".

People wouldn't have to cheat, if the programs were slightly more generous. It wouldn't have to be much.
posted by elizilla at 11:45 AM on July 15 [35 favorites]


It's astonishing how effective the "welfare queen" imagery was. I can recall, in the 80's, a co-worker flying into a rage because she saw a black woman wearing a leather coat. "How can a welfare queen like that afford such a nice coat?!" she demanded. "How do you know she's on welfare," I asked. "All black people are on welfare! You know that!"

I didn't talk to that co-worker after that. It's amazing how angry some white people can get at the thought of other folks enjoying even a modest amount of comfort.
posted by SPrintF at 12:09 PM on July 15 [15 favorites]


about a quarter of the $63 billion EITC payments are erroneous (note that fraud is only a subset of erroneous payments).

First, you're mixing units: #of payments against dollars. Second, your own resources suggest that this is an overstatement:

IRS studies of EITC overpayments suffer from methodological problems that likely cause them to overstate somewhat the actual EITC overpayment rate, as analysis by the IRS National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, has concluded.

If you're worrying about fraud by welfare recipients you either have incorrect beliefs about facts or morals.
posted by PMdixon at 12:14 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]


It's amazing how angry some white people can get at the thought of other folks enjoying even a modest amount of comfort.

This reminds me of how some people will become incensed when they see someone who is receiving a form of financial assistance and they spend it on a so called "vice" such as cigarettes, alcohol, a toy, a game, tv, cellphones, etc. Thinking specifically about how certain people politicized the financial assistance/debit cards that were handed out to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. There were all these stories about people spending their money on things that were not considered "necessities".

Some people forget that sometimes it's that single cigarette or a drink that gets them through living in an otherwise difficult and harsh life. We all cope in various ways. And sometimes you need to go to the movies to feel human to forget about your troubles.

How that person chooses to spend their dollar is their business. They're not obligated to only spend it on food or housing. Just food for thought.
posted by Fizz at 12:18 PM on July 15 [39 favorites]


Truly, corporate welfare is doled only to the just and deserving.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:30 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]


All systems are subject to exploitation. Corporations exploit tax and incentive systems at the Pro level. I have encountered people who maximize public assistance benefits, not always strictly honestly. As a society, we need to understand how we want to provide assistance. And we should provide assistance. Benefits should be defined as short term for urgent need, longer term for people with disability, safety net for everybody who needs it. Many benefits have long waiting lists, and reward length of benefit status, basically encouraging some people to choose lower income. I have seen people reject a raise because their child had to stay on Medicaid. We reduced hours instead, but systems can surely be built better. I think some benefits used to be set so that if your income rose $2, you lost $1 of benefit. That makes sense to me. The Fed. Minimum Wage is 7.75/hour, which does not incentivize part-time employment slinging burgers at a food joint that requires a lengthy bus ride for a 4 hour shift. I have known people who grew up in a family with public assistance, medicaid, the child welfare system and who are not prepared for dealing with health insurance, landlords, and financial independence.

Double the Minimum Wage, at least, make Health Care Universal, make chid care affordable and high quality, and a lot of the need for benefit systems would be reduced. People who need long term assistance because they are unable to work a lot have a ridiculously hard time. People who need help getting through a rough patch don't get help.
posted by theora55 at 1:54 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]


I think some benefits used to be set so that if your income rose $2, you lost $1 of benefit. That makes sense to me.

This is a 33% marginal tax rate before we get to income taxes and FICA. I'm glad it makes sense to you because to me it seems both contrary to the stated purposes (which I think are immoral in a society as rich as the US) and cruel
posted by PMdixon at 3:11 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]


If even one corporation is gaming the tax system, should corporate tax breaks, subsidies, and other welfare be tightly restricted and heavily means-tested?

Petition to change Amazon's name to WelfareKing.com
posted by lumpenprole at 3:45 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]


I’ve long argued for a Universal SNAP system of debit cards that you’d have to opt out of : food is a unique commodity because we need it to live, it rots, and we throw away so much of it. A universal program has the benefit of reducing paperwork and time consuming means testing while also reducing whatever small fraud there is in the system in addition to all the usual upsides to universalizing a program. Add in some of the basic public services mentioned above, and you’d have a lot less need for welfare as well as keeping money within communities and giving everyone a lot more personal freedom.

Seriously SnAP is almost s model program and not just cause it probobly saved me and my brother’s Life. That merger but if support was enough to turn our lives (and health!) around. It should be available to everyone,
posted by The Whelk at 3:46 PM on July 15 [12 favorites]


I dunno, I’m a hardcore liberal but I wouldn’t support a system where 1 person gets needed benefits and 1000 people game the system. That’s a stupid system. The problem is that the Right is always trying to dismantle everything or vote to make Democrats look bad, so we can’t get around to trying to improve a system that we all agree is needed. I blame Republicans 100% for this. It is absolutely not a both-sides problem. As soon as you start creating the welfare queen myth or saying all migrants are ISIS drug dealers, you’ve effectively thrown a wrench in the works.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:56 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]


On a slightly-related tangent, I'm reminded of the (pre-Columbian) food banks created by 'Andean Civilization'.

State officials created hundreds of warehouses brimming with processed tubers (chuño ... potato chips) and processed meats (ch’arki ... jerky!). Many were for travellers along the thousands of miles of roads - 'to compensate for natural and man-made calamities', especially frosty nights; others were near large cities. Definitely a welfare diet!

Alas, invading Spaniard armies found these roads and warehouses very helpful.
posted by Twang at 4:03 PM on July 15 [8 favorites]


In other contexts we celebrate and reward gaming the system. It's only when the dollar amounts are lowest and the consequences to human life are most severe that we get out our balance sheets and magnifying glasses.

Growing up poor I learned that bureaucracy was intentionally cruel and humiliating, that making services unpleasant to use was a deliberate goal. As a professional adult in a new social class I'm constantly surprised by helpful and efficient people trying not to waste my time and catering to my needs.

The petty moralizing we impose on social services is a choice, and it's a choice that reveals a childish and impoverished soul. We can do better. Receiving help shouldn't have a punishment built in.
posted by idiopath at 4:13 PM on July 15 [31 favorites]


How that person chooses to spend their dollar is their business

This this this. My (older, white, liberal) co-worker just this past Friday started moralizing about offering to buy someone food, because she worries about giving itinerant people money, because they'll just spend it on drugs.

I managed not to lose my temper, but it's hard to say "who are you to judge?" without slight bitterness. I then went on a bit of a rant about charity and maintenance heroin habits and what you can actually buy with SNAP and what it's like to be dirt poor, which I'm sure didn't do anyone much good. But goddamn do I hate that shit.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:30 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]


This reminds me of how some people will become incensed when they see someone who is receiving a form of financial assistance and they spend it on a so called "vice" such as cigarettes, alcohol, a toy, a game, tv, cellphones, etc. Thinking specifically about how certain people politicized the financial assistance/debit cards that were handed out to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. There were all these stories about people spending their money on things that were not considered "necessities".

Which, in turn, reminds me of something Frowner observed in an old thread about (it seems so damn quaint now) hipster-bashing:
2. Bad ideas about the ethical life: to wit, everyone should be as miserable as the most miserable. Which is why, even if you're a hipster radical who, like, does a bunch of volunteer work and political work and whose paid work is either worthwhile or supports your unpaid work, you are still a terrible person because you have this existence with artistic frivolity in it instead of being as soberly miserable as the most exploited working class person or heavily-mortgaged suburbanite. (I mean, I know plenty of hipster radical kids doing good work.) Also, if you have the nerve to be a student - especially if you're not studying to be a CPA or an engineer - no matter how much you're working, you are a terrible person if you dress funny.

I remember when I was in college having some dude hassle me as I walked to one of my two jobs about how I clearly didn't have to work, since I had very short hair and weird glasses (this was in the nineties when those things were less acceptable). Actually, I had chosen my two jobs precisely because they didn't require me to wear clothes I hated or to look straight. But I should have taken some horrible office job and worn horrible office clothes, because by dressing like a queer weirdo, I was clearing being an overprivileged hipster. Race you to the bottom, eh?
posted by non canadian guy at 6:00 PM on July 15 [12 favorites]


Welfare and the politics of poverty this 13 minute mini-documentary is a nice introduction by Retro Report and the NY Times.
posted by Monochrome at 7:29 PM on July 15


It's amazing how angry some white people can get at the thought of other folks enjoying even a modest amount of comfort.

The best expression of that sentiment is IMO still this:
The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of whom will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.
I am also reminded of the white woman at the food stamp office who told me unabashedly that it seemed like "they" all drove Cadillacs to the office. (What year or condition the Caddies were in, or even whether they owned it themselves, was beside the point, I guess.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:37 PM on July 15 [7 favorites]


Solidarity is the most important and hardest thing we have to build.
posted by The Whelk at 10:21 PM on July 15 [6 favorites]



In my career I've met a few who have been actually barred from food stamps for fraud, (and medicaid- there is something that's like a super restricted HMO plan for people suspected of medicaid abuse) mostly for substance abuse related things. And these people were malnourished and very sick people because they would litterally sell their food stamps for drugs and just... Not. Eat. Some of them eventually died from their conditions.

Clearly taking away footstamps isn't actually the answer to that problem. But it was the goverments answer to that problem.

Because providing quality substance abuse treatment, actual long term psychotherapy, a payee, trauma informed holistic healthcare, etc etc is just out of the question.


Spending money on our poorest, and most vulnerable populations (people who are incarcerated, children, people with disabilities, high risk minority groups) dramatically increases outcomes . We know this. We know food stamps work. Education works. Health insurance works. Substance abuse treatment works. We know reducing social determinates of need increases life span.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:26 PM on July 15 [20 favorites]


Halloween Jack, I hug your comment.

SNAP for everyone? How about WIC? Let's pay farmers to grow vegetables instead of paying them not to grow wheat or whatever, and give everybody lots of veggies. Don't like kale? Who cares? Compost it and eat the green beans. Or carrots. If you try parsnips you may find out you love them. I have seen the difference WIC makes.

Of all the ways the government spends money, feeding people seems unobjectionable.

> PMdixon: As it is instead, you make an extra buck and you lose a buck or more of benefits, which is a disincentive.
posted by theora55 at 3:41 PM on July 17 [5 favorites]


Universal WIC and that baby box program everyone in Finland gets where you get s box containing everything an infant needs for a year (the box itself can double as a cradle)
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on July 17 [5 favorites]


I'm listening to the Code Switch podcast about this right now. It's soooooo good. It made me stop and come here to recommend a book that I listened to a month ago (the author, Bridgette Davis, is the reader and she has a great voice), "The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers." I first heard about it on Fresh Air. One of the things of note in the podcast was how Taylor's lawyer supposedly wanted her to "tone things down," her way of dress and her outspokenness and she just refused. In Davis' book I marvelled at how her mother insisted on displaying a certain degree of wealth and class in her children. In contrast to my upbringing (white, middle-class striving) in which, yes, we were taught how to dress and act but there was a level of keeping things reined in so that we wouldn't appear too ostentatious. I've thought about that a lot. For Davis' mother, it was clear and honest defiance and you cannot fault her for that. There's no reward in society in playing down your station for white folks. You can't win anyway so fuck them and their feelings. Taylor's story is so broad and criminal but I can't help but root for her in that particular brand of defiance.
posted by amanda at 12:04 PM on July 18


Oh, and one other thing I liked about the "Fannie Davis" book was the way that the author felt the criminalization of what her mother was doing was aided by throwing around racial shade. Just a little sprinkling and a lot of people will change their opinions about things. It made me question where my own feelings about the kind of activities her mother engaged in (neighborhood numbers games aka "the lottery") came from.
posted by amanda at 12:17 PM on July 18


As it is instead, you make an extra buck and you lose a buck or more of benefits, which is a disincentive

I understand that. 2:1 replacement as you suggested is an acceptable setup is a disincentive too, just less of one. If I lose 50 cents of benefits for every dollar of wage income, that is exactly equivalent to having half my benefits taken out of my wages. As I'm sure you know, once you include childcare, transport, etc, many jobs especially low paying ones do in fact require an overhead of 50% of the wages or more, meaning that phasing out benefits that sharply can very easily tip a job from being dollar-increasing for a household to being dollar-decreasing.

The people designing these programs usually talk about it being a goal to have program beneficiaries be in as many hours of paid employment as possible. The sharper the phase out of benefits, the more of a tax you're placing on people moving into wage labor, and as right wing economists never tire of saying, you get less of the behaviors you tax. The only way to avoid this problem of incentives is to not phase out the benefits at all, at which point you're talking about some kind of universal benefits scheme for whoever wants to do the paperwork. (and at that point you might as well cut the paperwork unless you're using "willingness to spend time filling out paperwork" as a proxy for need which is probably a bad one)

tldr this entire conversation is the argument for a UBI/UBI allows people to do more market employment than a phased benefits scheme
posted by PMdixon at 6:39 AM on July 19


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