Neoliberalism, the American Family, and the Threat of the Welfare Queen
By: Trish Hyde
Figure 1: Linda Taylor, the original welfare queen from: Josh Levin, THE QUEEN: THE FORGOTTEN LIFE BEHIND AN AMERICAN MYTH, Waterville: Thorndike Press, 2019.
In a presidential campaign speech in Gilford, New Hampshire in 1976, Ronald Reagan introduced the welfare queen into the popular American consciousness. Although the term had been used prior to 1976, then-candidate Ronald Reagan invoked her image in a way that would continue to frame debates around welfare for the next twenty years. The welfare queen had “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards,” and received “Medicaid, getting food stamps… collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax‐free cash income alone is over $150,000.” The real welfare queen Reagan referred to was Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who, at the time of Reagan’s campaign, had yet to be convicted. By the time she was convicted, the welfare fraud charges totaled $8,000 and she supposedly owned a mink coat and three cars including a Cadillac. As with many myths, the realities of her life and crimes were less important than the idea she represented. For the Gilford residents listening that day, the welfare queen was a villain, using their tax-dollars to fund her unearned lifestyle.
Welfare reform served as the ideal avenue through which to push neoliberal economic policies, specifically the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 which introduced, among other things, a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits. The definition of neoliberal economics is often debated; though there are a few key aspects that most scholars agree upon. As described by David Harvey, professor of political economics at CUNY, at the heart of neoliberalism is the belief that “human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” If neoliberalism hinges on independence, the welfare system was a clear impediment to its success. Additionally, neoliberals see a strong American family as a cure for the social ills of the modern age. The “welfare queen” of the late twentieth century was an ideal villain to neoliberalism: she was dependent on the state and as a single woman raising illegitimate children, she rejected the nuclear family model. Using this framework, I demonstrate how both the explicit and coded references to the welfare queen in campaign speeches, debates, and political literature served to further neoliberal economic policies from her first mention by Ronald Reagan 1976 to the passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996.
The historiography of the welfare queen has largely framed her role in American politics as social and political one. The welfare queen in the public imagination is a Black, single mother, or a Black mother lying about the presence of a man in her life to increase her monthly welfare check amount. The race of the welfare queen is by no means inconsequential. In Why Americans Hate Welfare, published in 1999, Martin Gilens argues that Americans do not in fact hate the concept of welfare, but instead believe too many recipients are undeserving. Two General Social Survey studies from 1990 and 1994 cited in the book show that as Americans’ perceptions of Black people as lazy increased, so did their desire to cut welfare spending and vice versa. The racialized and gendered perceptions of welfare are integral to understanding the public identity of the welfare queen. Additionally the word welfare itself has become so pejorative that simply changing welfare to “programs for the poor” in one study nearly reversed support for increasing funds.
Eileen Boris describes the shift in welfare that took place in the second half of the twentieth century. Boris argues as the faces of welfare changed from white widows to Black single mothers, “[t]he meaning of dependency changed, and so did government support when the color of dependency became black.” In the eyes of the government and voters, white widows were perceived to be deservingly dependent as they were considered poor not as a result of their own doing while the Black single mother’s poverty was seen as her own doing. Since the enslavement of Africans in America, many white Americans have seen Black women as bad mothers only furthering their perception that Black mothers were undeserving of government aid. Additionally, in the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans began worrying about the “breakdown” of the American family and particularly the Black American family, and saw welfare as both the culprit and product.
The gender of the welfare queen is also integral to her public identity. Highlighting the misogynoir inherent to perceptions of the welfare queen, Boris juxtaposed the image of the American cowboy against the welfare queen, highlighting both figures’ roles in US foreign policy. As Boris argues, the villainy of the welfare queen is not only her economic dependence on the state, but her independence from a husband. The cowboy, in contrast, was independent, free from government intervention, and masculine. Boris argues the cowboy and cowboy-like presidents like Reagan represent the ideal American role in foreign policy: a deliverer of justice and order, outside the law. The welfare queen threatened to bring down the cowboy and therefore the country in part with her sexuality. Other scholars have described the anti-welfare rhetoric of this period as depicting the welfare system as a mother and welfare recipients as increasingly burdensome children.
Figure 2: President Reagan in 1987, “How compassionate is a welfare system that discourages families that are economically self reliant?” From: https://www.c-span.org/video/?171430-1/welfare-research
More broadly, the history of American welfare is complex and must be well understood in order to comprehend the importance of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Before its passage, low-income mothers received money from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), originally called the Aid to Dependent Children, created in 1935. Although there were precursors, most American welfare scholars agree that the history of the modern American welfare system begins with the AFDC. Like many New Deal policies, the AFDC excluded many. For example, non-white women and women who had never been married were left out of the AFDC, leading the program to serve mostly white widows. As a result, many American welfare scholars see the intersections of race, class, and gender as being baked into the American welfare system from its inception.
The AFDC remained largely the same through World War II, but faced a shift in the 1950s and 1960s as single motherhood across racial lines increased. President Lyndon Johnson responded with his War on Poverty that sought to reform the AFDC, which by 1960 had become the largest federal public assistance program. Instead, his administration substituted cash aid for job training to combat the “culture of poor people” that Johnson saw as the root of poverty. Following Johnson, presidents Nixon and Carter attempted to overhaul the welfare system. Neither Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan nor Carter’s Program for Better Jobs and Income—which would have replaced the AFDC— passed. Carter’s program would have disproportionately harmed single-mothers and rewarded male-breadwinner-led households. After years of debates and threats to replace the AFDC, the 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act did just that. It drastically altered welfare policy in the United States including changing the AFDC to the Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF). Under the AFDC there was no limit to the number of years someone could receive welfare, but with the introduction of TANF this changed. Since 1996, TANF recipients have had a five-year lifetime limit on receiving federal assistance through the program.
Little has been made in the historiography of the welfare queen of her role in the rise of neoliberal economics. The AFDC, passed as part of the New Deal, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act stand as symbols of two very different political and economic periods in American history. Because of the welfare queen’s dependence, absence from the workforce, and her role outside the nuclear family structure, she was antithetical to neoliberalism and an incredibly compelling villain. Both Republican and Democratic politicians used her image to champion neoliberalism from Reagan’s first invocation of her to Clinton’s coded references to her as he signed the PRWORA into law. Neoliberalism, they believed, was the clear solution to America’s ills in direct contrast to the New Deal, big government policies of the mid-century.
By examining the welfare queen as an economic symbol, I will build off the work of social historians like Rickie Solinger and Ron Becker as well as the work of economic historians. I will also be using the public identity of the welfare queen established by Ange-Marie Hancock in The Politics of Disgust to inform my analysis. According to Hancock, the public identity of the welfare queen was a single Black woman who was lazy, a bad mother, and overly fertile. Although previous theorists have defined the public identity as the public presentation of oneself, Hancock defines the public identity as being tied not only to one’s public actions but also the perception and manipulation of those actions. She uses this definition particularly for members of marginalized groups whose public identities are often not their own making. Because the welfare queen stands at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood, her public identity was largely not of her own making but instead made of media portrayals and political invocations.
For the neoliberal historiography, I will be building off the work of economic historians like Julie McLeavy and David Harvey. Additionally, I draw from the work of a few British historians who discuss the rise of neoliberalism in the United Kingdom which is not entirely the same as in the United States but many of the theories remain the same and were therefore helpful to this work. In addition to these secondary sources, I draw my research from C-Span, conservative think tank archives, like the Heritage Foundation, and local and national newspapers covering the welfare reform discourse by federal politicians and candidates, particularly Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, in the 1980s and 1990s. I also largely draw from both the Reagan Presidential Library archives and Clinton Presidential Library archives.
The American Family
Part of the reason why the welfare queen was so abhorrent to neoliberal champions was because of her position outside the nuclear family structure. As cultural historian Ron Becker argues, the nuclear family structure was economically critical to the rise of neoliberalism. Becker describes, “Amid the deepening neoliberalism of contemporary America, a romanticized notion of the autonomous family helps legitimate the shift to post-welfare-state governance.” He further argues that for neoliberalism to work, the nuclear family can and should step in to replace the assistance and support formerly provided by the government. In the future imagination of neoliberals, programs once in the hands of a New Deal government would be handled by the American family. In reference to a plan to decrease federal funding for child care, President George H.W. Bush highlighted this link directly. Bush, speaking in 1991 said, “The underpinning of my plan is the family — strength in the American family.” Like many of his neoliberal contemporaries, Bush relied on the nuclear American family to step in place of the government programs he cut.
In this future, there was barely any room for deserving welfare recipients and absolutely no room for the undeserving welfare queen. The neoliberal argument went further than simply justifying cuts to government programs by expecting the American family to step in and take on the economic burden, however. Neoliberalism’s commitment to the family structure was also social. As Ronald Reagan remarked at the 1986 signing of the Family Support Act, “For too long the Federal Government, with the best of intentions, has usurped responsibilities that appropriately lie with parents.” Rooted in Reagan and his contemporaries’ plans for government cutbacks was the belief that there were certain issues that should be handled by the family. This image (see fig. 1) evokes a common conception of welfare first described by feminist welfare activist, Johnnie Tilmon, in 1972 as trading “a man for the man.” The single, teen mother, aware of prevalent beliefs around the problems with children raised by single-mothers, assures the reader and nurse that Uncle Sam can step in as an appropriate father-figure. Reagan, voicing the beliefs of neoliberalism, argued, however, that the government was not an appropriate substitute for the American family and most especially for a patriarch.
Figure 3: Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, published 1986.
The importance of the welfare queen’s existence outside the family structure was not only its economic impact on the American taxpayer but the social impact of a matriarchal family structure. Although the rate of children born to single Black mothers dropped considerably between 1970 and 1996, fears about households run by single Black mothers and the baby boom of illegitimate Black children abound. So much so that some white doctors in the 1970s began refusing to deliver Black babies. In her 1996 autobiography, Alabama midwife Margaret Charles Smith described this belief in a baby boom of Black children among doctors in the 1980s and 90s, “These doctors are tired of delivering so many colored babies, not white but colored.” In part, this fear was due to longstanding prejudiced beliefs held by many white Americans of Black women as hypersexual and these beliefs, combined with the public identity of the welfare queen as hyper fertile only stoked these fears.
Specifically, white Americans associated the birth of more Black babies with increased rates of violent crime, higher rates of infant health problems, and worsening test scores all among Black children growing up in single-mother homes. Many Americans, particularly pro-family neoliberals, viewed the absence of a father in the home as deeply detrimental to the development of children. White Americans believed these trends in the Black community would lead to their having to pay higher taxes for police and medicaid and lower worker productivity, making their lives more inconvenient. Founder of The Heritage foundation, Edwin J. Feulner argued that without meaningful welfare reform, “taxpayers will continue to subsidize out-of-wedlock births.” Not only were white Americans dealing with the social and financial repercussions of Black illegitimacy, Feulner argued, they were encouraging it.
Although absent from then-Presidential candidate Reagan’s description, the image of the welfare queen and the Black pregnant teen demonized in Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “The Negro Family” blended in neoliberal discourse to become one lazy illegitimate baby-maker. Neoliberals demonized this mothering of illegitimate children because it cost the taxpayers more money and it was in moral opposition to the nuclear family structure. In a radio address in 1986, President Reagan argued:
“In inner cities today, families, as we’ve always thought of them, are not even
being formed…They’re children — many of them 15, 16, and 17 years old with all
the responsibilities of grownups thrust upon them…In some instances you have to
go back three generations before you can find an intact family. It seems even the
memory of families is in danger of becoming extinct.”
Reagan used the coded term “inner cities,” as a dog whistle for Black, reiterating the criticisms levied in the Moynihan report of Black, teenage motherhood. This was not an isolated issue for Reagan, however. Perhaps echoing Johnson’s beliefs in a “culture of poor people,” Reagan emphasized what he saw as a pattern of illegitimacy among poor, Black families. This was undoubtedly not just an economic issue for Ronald Reagan, but a moral issue. Black illegitimacy and family brokenness, Reagan argued, threatens all American families.
Proponents of welfare reform found all illegitimacy concerning, however it was particularly illegitimacy among Black mothers that caused distress among conservatives. The perceived effects of Black matriarchal homes were well documented. Rob Rector, one of the architects of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act wrote, “Daughters of single mothers are twice as likely to be single mothers themselves if they are black.” Rector’s fears are clear, Black single mothers produce more Black single mothers and therefore more welfare queens. In the eyes of many liberals and conservatives alike, the American welfare system was to blame for this illegitimacy. Writing for The Heritage Foundation in 1995, policy analyst Pete Wilson encouraged Bob Dole to do something about the “perverse values promoted by the federal welfare system.” Not only were welfare queens seen as a financial strain on the American economy, they were a moral strain, encouraging the perversion of the American family structure.
So concerning was the reproduction of the Black single mothers that in 1986, ten years after invoking the welfare queen in his first presidential run, President Reagan created a White House task force, the President’s Task Force on Food Assistance, to study welfare and offer a reform model. The report recommended all federal food assistance should be combined into a grant program allocated to states for their handling. Ultimately, this recommendation resulted in the Federal Family Support Act of 1986, sponsored by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan. The text of the report itself, however, is revealing of prevailing fears around matriarchal families and the dissolution of the American family. The task force argued, “In some states this program [the AFDC] is limited to female-headed households, which creates a powerful incentive for dissolving the family. Many observers attribute at least part of the enormous increase in the incidence of female-headed families to the AFDC program.” Although the report attributes the perceived dissolution of the family to the AFDC, 23 states, including four of the five largest by population, at the time provided assistance through AFDC to two-parent households.
The task force feared, as did many neoliberals, a perceived breakdown of the two-parent household and the traditional American family and they found single-mothers receiving food assistance and the AFDC to be the culprits. In an attempt to stop the growth of matriarchal households and lower the number of eligible AFDC recipients, the Federal Family Support Act of 1986, among other things, expanded paternity verification requirements for single mothers seeking welfare. These paternity verification tests were reimbursed up to 90% by TANF, forcing welfare recipients to pay the full cost upfront. Additionally, welfare recipients whose children’s fathers were not paying child support had $50 of their monthly aide withheld to fund state programs aimed at tracking down non paying fathers. Some scholars see this as an attempt to not only control the reproduction of Black women seeking welfare but also an attempt to re-establish the patriarchal family dynamic.
The public identity of the welfare queen as hyper-fertile was also a cause for her public identity as a bad and irresponsible mother. In the eyes of conservatives, the welfare queen’s continuation to have children despite her financial ability to care for them was particularly villainous. Writing for The Heritage Foundation in 1995, policy analyst Pete Wilson declared, “having more and more children on welfare is wrong whether you’re and[sic] adult or a teenager.” Dependency, for Wilson and like-minded welfare reformers, was not only a burden on the taxpayers but morally wrong. Additionally, political theorist Wendy Brown describes the connection American neoliberals draw between citizenship and independence from the state. Brown argues that in the neoliberal world-view, full citizenship is conditional upon one’s economic independence. For neoliberals, Brown believes, the citizen is self-sufficient, entrepreneurial, and economically rational. When the citizen falls outside these norms, their full citizenship is in jeopardy. Wilson’s belief in a restriction on the reproductive rights of welfare recipients is not only in line with Brown’s neoliberal theory but also stands on the shoulders of years of welfare policies intersecting with eugenics from forced sterilizations to the family caps some states enacted as a part of TANF. Additionally, after Norplant’s FDA approval in 1990, many states began offering reimbursements or cash bonuses to AFDC recipients who agree to have the birth control device implanted, which was effective for up to five years.
Beyond immorality, many saw having children while receiving welfare as a form of irresponsible parenting. Just two months before the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, President Clinton addressed the nation on welfare. Clinton said that four years prior he had “challenged America to end welfare as we know it, to require work, promote responsible parenting, shift the system from dependence to independence…on what welfare reform should look like: Pro work, pro family, pro independence.” Despite no explicit mentions of the welfare queen, Clinton’s goal of responsible parenting is in clear contrast to the irresponsible parenting of the welfare queen. Additionally, Clinton’s emphasis on the family and on independence are clear markers of neoliberal policy. If the future of the American welfare system is pro family, pro independence, and pro responsible parenting, welfare as we knew it was exemplified by the welfare queen.
The Welfare Queen and Neoliberal Independence
It is nearly impossible to discuss the public identity of the welfare queen without discussing her laziness and unwillingness to enter the workforce. In a study of 149 news articles between 1995 and 1996, Hancock found “don’t work” and “lazy” to be the most prevalently mentioned alongside stories of welfare mothers. As discussed earlier, this element of the public identity of the welfare queen is deeply tied to her Blackness. White Americans’ beliefs about the inherent laziness in Black people go back to American slavery. These beliefs have been reiterated over two hundred years of pop culture from minstrel shows to sitcoms.
In 1988, Senator Joe Biden, wrote a column in the Newark Post about the need for welfare reform. Biden wrote, “We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous…Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down—that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.” Senator Biden directly invoked the image of the welfare queen created by President Reagan. Biden went so far as to give the myth credence by offering the possibility that it might not be exaggerated. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the welfare queen came to symbolize, for Biden as for many Americans, a desperate need for welfare reform. The current welfare system, Biden argued, was not helping poor, Black single mothers find jobs but instead rewarding their lazy and lavish lifestyles.
So prevalent was this belief that, in 1992, Democratic State Senator Michael C. Creedon of Massachusetts said, “General Relief goes to people who are urinating on the floor in the bus station in Brockton and throwing up. They take that $338 and go to the nearest bar and spend it. He was not concerned how his comments would be received, he said, because welfare recipients do not vote.” Although not necessarily a reference to the welfare queen, the pervasive beliefs about the perceived laziness of welfare recipients informs understandings of the public identity of the welfare queen. Importantly, Creedon’s comments were in line with many Republican and Democratic politicians’ comments at the time about welfare recipients. In 1988, Republican New York Senatorial candidate Robert R. McMillan, in discussing his beliefs on welfare recipients, referred to himself as a “compassionate conservative – and I don’t mean the person who’s lazy shouldn’t get a kick in the butt; they should.” McMilan, in aligning himself with the dominant conservative view of how welfare recipients should be treated, highlighted how pervasive the lazy stereotype really was. Many of the Democrats publicly concerned about the so-called culture of dependence were among the New Democrats, a centrist group led by Bill Clinton who espoused Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism.
Although perceptions of welfare recipients as lazy have long blocked attempts to increase or even stagnate welfare, neoliberals clung to this perception and took its political implications to new heights. Julie McLeavy discusses the tendency of neoliberalism to produce “a culture in which political problems are transformed into individual problems with market solutions.” The political problem of welfare has become individualized and the neoliberal market solution is work outside the home. Instead of the government solving political problems like widespread poverty with policy, neoliberalism insists on individual, market solutions and the role of the American family. Using this logic, if one was poor and continued to be so, it was their responsibility to solve their individual problem with a market solution.
This belief in individualized solutions dominated a 1991 New York Times profile on then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In the article, Thomas describes his belief that the “path to achievement for blacks in America is through hard work and individual initiative.” Coming from a poor background himself, Thomas attributed his personal success to his self help doctrine. Thomas’s self reliance, however, was in contrast with his sister’s dependence. Thomas described his sister’s “dependence, both psychological and financial, on welfare. ‘She gets mad when the mailman is late with the check… ‘Even worse, he said, her children feel entitled to the check as well.’” Although Thomas never uses the term “welfare queen,” the implication is clear. Moreover, Thomas’s disgust at the entitlement her children feel to the welfare check indicates his belief in her bad mothering. Additionally, although not necessarily emblematic of the public identity of the welfare queen, his description of her anger is impossible to ignore. The misogynistic and racist stereotype of the angry Black woman is well documented and serves to highlight the intersectional aspects of this profile. Additionally, this stereotype had often been coupled with the overbearing matriarch trope, together referred to as the “sapphire caricature,” who exemplified white Americans’ beliefs about the matriarchal homes of Black, single welfare mothers. Examples include Aunt Esther in Sanford and Son, Pam in Martin, or the numerous examples of angry Black women with guns in Blaxploitation films. Thomas, as a Black man, is subject to many of the same racist beliefs levied against Black female welfare recipients like his sister. However, he is able to employ his masculine and socio-economic privilege to distance himself and further villainize her.
Furthermore, the entitlement Thomas describes his sister feeling to seemingly unearned money is deeply antithetical to neoliberal values. This is, of course, despite the work that she and single mother recipients of welfare perform everyday by raising children. This is not, however, the conception of work at play in welfare reform that requires parents to work in order to receive aid. The belief that child-rearing, specifically motherhood, is not work has long influenced American welfare policy. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, any welfare that went to families went to the fathers to supplement the income they earned outside the home, not to the women as to avoid accidentally paying women to work in the home. Even when widows received welfare it was made clear that the money was in place of a husband not as wage for raising children.
Figure 4: President Clinton’s State of the Union Address in January 1995 where he said of his plan for welfare reform “There ought to be a simple rule, anyone who can work, must go to work” From: https://www.c-span.org/video/?414035-1/1996-welfare-law
In thinking about wage labor outside the home, integral to neoliberal thought is the belief that if employment is voluntary, so too is unemployment. The reason unemployment rises, neoliberals reason, is that people do not want to work and because welfare payments are too generous, allowing lazy people to live in nice houses or drive nice cars (see: the welfare queen’s Cadillac): houses and cars, sometimes, even nicer than those of the working population. In a campaign speech given by then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to a largely white, working-class population, he drew on this very fear. Reagan told them about four subsidized housing buildings in New York saying, “If you are a slum dweller…you can get an apartment with 11‐foot ceilings, with a 20‐foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and play room, and the rent begins at $113.20 and that includes utilities.” Reagan also referred to his audience as hard working people who pay their bills and put up with high taxes. It is these high taxes, Reagan is arguing, that are allowing poor people in New York to live in a nicer situation than his audience, undeservingly.
Good Welfare Mothers
If welfare queens were bad welfare mothers, was there such a thing as a good welfare mother? In the 1990s, the Republican Party began to present examples of “good” welfare mothers who had, through their own neoliberal self-reliance, managed to become economically independent. The Republican Party in particular in 1996, in an effort to gain the support of more Black voters, began highlighting Black women in the party who championed welfare reform. At the 1996 GOP convention, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson introduced two Black women, Eloise Anderson and Nicole Smith, both of whom were formerly poor, single mothers receiving welfare. Thompson described them as “remarkable women” and “great Americans” who pulled themselves off welfare. Both women were described as exemplifying the self-reliance and independence valued most by neoliberalism. A San Diego Union Tribune article from the day after Thompson spokedescribed, “[t]he Republican Party last night officially retired the apocryphal welfare queen of Chicago and replaced her with a welfare mother made good.” It was clear to observers at the time that the women asked to speak at the GOP convention were in direct contrast to the welfare queen. Again using the public identity established by Ange-Marie Hancock, that meant these women were hardworking, good mothers, and not overly fertile, having only as many children as they could care for.
Eloise Anderson, in particular, was an important figure in the Republican Party’s welfare reform during the Clinton administration. Serving as the Director of California’s Department of Social Services and as a welfare advisor to Governor Thompson, Anderson was at the forefront of many statewide welfare reform policies. One LA Times profile, entitled “The Queen of Responsibility,” describes her self-reliance, that, much like Clarence Thomas, allowed her to rise from humble beginnings to the powerful socio-economic status she held in 1996. Like the San Diego Union Tribune, the LA Times, placed Eloise Anderson in contrast with the irresponsible welfare queen. Where the welfare queen was lazy, Anderson was hardworking, “Anderson worked a second job pumping gas to pay a baby sitter so she could take classes at night. She went to bed at 12:30 a.m. On weekends, Anderson was up again at 5 a.m.” Where the welfare queen was a bad mother, Anderson was a great mother: “She made her own potato chips and imitation Hostess cupcakes so her children wouldn’t feel they had less than other kids.” And where the welfare queen was overly-fertile and continuing to have children she couldn’t care for, Anderson was caring for children she did not birth: she was “[t]he mother of a foster daughter, an adopted daughter and a biological son.” Anderson was everything the welfare queen was not. Her neoliberal individualism defined the welfare reform policies she proposed including a two-year limit on welfare and increased threats of removing children from the care of mothers who receive welfare.
Figure 5: Denis Paquin, Associated Press, 1996. President Clinton and Lillie Harden embrace after President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act into law.
It was not only the Republicans who used former welfare mothers to bolster their welfare reform policies. At the bill signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, President Clinton had a number of former welfare recipients present, including Lillie Harden (see figure 2), whom President Clinton had met years before at a governors’ panel on welfare reform. In much of the press around the event, Harden was presented very similarly to Eloise Anderson. Harden was a hard-working Black mother who, after two years on welfare, had started a job at the grocery store and stopped receiving aid. At the panel, when asked by then-Governor Clinton what the best part of being off welfare was she said, “When my boy goes to school and they say, ‘What does your mama do for a living?’ he can give an answer.” Harden’s focus on the social benefit to her children that economic independence provided solidified her as a good mother, in contrast to the bad mothering of the welfare queen. Additionally, her temporary reliance on welfare, notably less than the new five-year lifetime limit in the PRWORA, and her pride in her job made her the perfect image of neoliberal welfare reform.
In 2002, eight years after being lauded at the exemplary welfare mother, Lillie Harden had a stroke. With $450 in monthly prescription drugs, Harden could not afford her medical bills. 20 years prior, Harden had received medicaid but, as a result of the neoliberal reforms made in the intervening years, she no longer qualified. When interviewed in 2002, she requested a message to be sent to former President Clinton asking him to help her get on medicaid. Lillie Harden died in 2014, and, when interviewed in 2005, said of her job at the grocery store and her attempts to pull herself out of poverty, “it didn’t pay off.”
The optimism around Lillie Harden’s story and the bleak reality of her fate mirror the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed on August 23, 1996 with the yes votes of 98 Democratic Congress Members and 25 Democratic Senators. Although the years immediately following its passage saw a decline in welfare cases, economic scholars largely attribute this to the state of the economy in the late 1990s. The Council of Economic Advisors found that 40-80% of this decline was likely caused by the economic boom. Additionally, although the number of welfare recipients who are employed increased by twenty percent between 1994 and 1999, the mean earnings of former welfare recipients was well below the poverty line. Many proponents of welfare reform point to the decline in poverty overall in the late 1990s but fail to mention that poverty increased for one demographic: single, working mothers.
The misogynoir of the overt and coded references to the welfare queen not only aided in the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, it was also emblematic of who would be hardest hit by its passage. In 2020, when poverty rates rose for the first time in five years following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more families than ever were in need of welfare. However, for every 100 families in poverty across the United States, only 21 received TANF down from 68 in 1996. The rates were the worst for Black families who were more likely to live in states with lower TANF to poverty ratios and more likely still to live in states with the lowest benefits. Those who do receive benefits, however, have seen their purchasing power diminish greatly with the high inflation rates in 2022. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have not increased the maximum monthly amount TANF recipients are allotted since 1990, leading the $403 to be worth less than half today.
The public identity of the welfare queen and her direct and indirect invocations over two decades stood in direct opposition to the rising tide of neoliberal ideals. The welfare queen’s matriarchal home and singleness threatened the patriarchal American family structure that was so integral to the success of neoliberal cuts to government programs. The welfare queen’s perceived laziness was not in line with the hard-working, self-reliance of neoliberal icons like Clarence Thomas and Eloise Anderson. Her hyper-fertility was a moral and economic issue for white, tax-paying Americans who feared having to pay for her irresponsible parenting choice. And finally, her bad mothering raised a generation of future government-dependents and teenage mothers. The welfare queen was the perfect antithesis to neoliberalism and her public identity was weaponized to help pass neoliberal welfare reforms that are still hurting Black, single mothers today.
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 John Levin, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, (New York: Little
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 David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.
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 Eileen Boris, “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens: Independence, Dependence, and
Interdependence at Home and Abroad,” Journal of American Studies 41, no. 3, (2007), 603.
 Ange-Marie Hancock, The Politics of Disgust: The Public Indemnity of the Welfare Queen (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 51.
 Hancock, The Politics of Disgust, 26.
 Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back, 81.
 Boris, “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens,” 602.
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