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The Persistence of Memes

The Long Life and Career of Reagan’s Welfare Queen

 

A colleague of mine, responsible for selling items at my high school, explained to me that some students try to con her out of her wares. They will use such gimmicks as claiming that they already paid, but did not receive the item, or maintaining that their parents or another party purchased the item and they are there to pick it up for them.

She was not clear about just how many students attempted this, but she was adamant about the nature of the problem. “It’s all of those kids who have spent their lives getting handouts. They think they are entitled to getting everything for free.” She leaned in close to me and astutely pointed out that “they can afford two hundred dollar cell-phones, though.”

She must have been especially astute, as I’m not sure how she knew that the students who were trying to get free stuff, in fact, received welfare at all, let alone all of their lives. Did she really keep track of the cell phones of such students? If so, how did she know that the students, themselves, or the parents, purchased the two hundred dollar phones? Perhaps, the phones were gifts, or provided by other family members? In other words, where did she get the data from which she drew the conclusion that those students who tried to con her were the children of welfare abusers?

Of course, she had no such data. What she had was a meme, a basic explanatory idea that has spread through American culture and often is taken as unquestionably true. The meme is not true. It is nothing more than an incarnation of Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queen,” presumably based on the story of a real welfare recipient who ingeniously ripped off the taxpayers to the tune of $150,000 a year. The welfare queen, however, is more a model than an actual person. She is a woman of color, often black, but increasingly Hispanic. She has multiple kids. She drives to the welfare office in her Cadillac to pick up her entitlement check.¹ She has been living like this all her life and has little incentive to work.

Reagan gave his famous “welfare queen” speech in 1976. A study published in 1979 by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed the so-called Welfare Queen was largely a myth. Welfare was not the easy route to the high life, as state disbursements were still below poverty level. Hardly an incentive to remain idle. Most welfare recipients in the 1979 study (USDHHS Aid to Families with Dependent Children: A Chartbook) had been receiving benefits for less than two years and almost seventy percent had been on the rolls for less than three years. The lifetime welfare recipient was a rarity. Welfare recipients had only about two children. They were not pumping out the babies to increase their check, as the additional welfare income was insufficient for covering the costs of added children.

As for creating a cycle of dependence and a loss of incentive to work, research around that time was clear. There was no difference in the work ethic between poor people and middle class people. Even during the 70’s and 80’s, most poor families had a history of work, and were often cast into poverty as a result of job loss, disability or desertion of a spouse.

Were there people who abused the welfare system? Of course. An intrepid enough scammer can game or rig any system created by man. Perhaps there were some who may have deserved the title of Welfare Queen, though at the time most poor families were male headed, but they were a significant minority. Less than .5% of welfare cases were referred for fraud prosecution. The study was not clear as to how many of the defendants were found to be guilty.

In 1996 the Welfare Queen took a significant hit in her ability to milk the taxpayer and spend her life on the dole. Since 1996 states have been committed to reducing their caseloads, often without regard to economic contingency such as, oh, a collapse of the global economy. The poor were expected to find jobs even if there were no jobs to find. In Florida, the maximum allowable time receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is forty-eight months, at which point the family is no longer eligible, regardless of work status. Currently, 92% of welfare recipients in Florida have been on the rolls for two years or less.

In four years the Welfare Queen can look forward to receiving a whopping $303 a month to satisfy her lavish lifestyle. How will she ever spend all of that money? Of course, she can always drive her Cadillac to the welfare office. If it’s a 1995 Cadillac. In the state of Florida vehicle assets can be worth no more than $8,500.

Yes, Mike, but you are forgetting that there is no limit for children. The Welfare Queen simply pops out the kids every time her eligibility is up and she gets to extend her time on the dole. Well, perhaps someone should tell her that, because the average welfare household in Florida, as well as in the has less than two children and less than three household members.

Memes, or what we sociologists like to call Social Constructs, often take on a life of their own. Ronald Reagan’s construction of the Welfare Queen has been shaping our understanding of the poor in America for the last thirty-seven years, and we thought she was unemployed. Unfortunately, the constructed meme was based on a faulty premise…a lie. When we accept, without question, a flawed or distorted meme, that construct shapes our perceptions of the world. In the case of my colleague, her acceptance of the Welfare Queen myth, whether she knew it or not, had a reflexive impact on her own understanding of reality. The construct influenced her into accepting as fact a distortion of reality that reinforced the original construct.

Too often, such constructions become the premise for policy that has negative implications for real people.

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¹ Indeed, the “driving the Cadillac to the welfare office” meme has taken on a life of its own. Many people whom I’ve spoken to claimed to have seen this phenomenon themselves.

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