Debunking the Myth of the “Welfare Queen”: Who Actually Receives TANF Benefits?

In February of this year, a blogger wrote about their experience observing an 11th grade classroom. The post discusses a student performing a poem that mocks a poor woman who encourages her seven children to steal food. When the character confronts police officers and runs into the drug-addict father of her children, she delivers the punch line – “You can have my welfare check!”

According to the post’s author, when asked who the poem was referring to, the student said “Minorities, because they’re the main ones on welfare.”

Besides the obviously skewed viewpoint the poem expresses, it is alarming to note that the girl reading the poem was one of two black students in the classroom – the rest being white.

This unsettlingly common view of cash assistance recipients in the U.S. dates back to the 1976 presidential campaign, when Ronald Reagan popularized a hyperbolic framework for female welfare recipients known as the “welfare queen.” The stereotype is sexist, racist, and belittles the legitimacy of cash assistance programs, criminalizing and disparaging those in need.

While the infamous star of the “welfare queen” narrative, cruising around in her “welfare Cadillac” was nowhere to be found by the national media, the fictional picture of lower class minority women abusing the system that gives them monthly “hand-outs” continues to shape the way Americans think about welfare recipients. Moreover, this misconception adversely affects the largest demographic benefitting from cash assistance – children.

Realistically, the numbers of people living in poverty in the United States don’t match up with the numbers of people receiving TANF benefits. As we blogged in September, one out of every seven Americans is living in poverty, and 29.9% of female-headed households live below the federal poverty line. In 2008, 20.7% of all U.S. children under age 18 lived in poverty. To frame welfare as a black woman’s problem counterproductively divides the poor into defensive racial groups, making it even easier to silence their concerns.

In 2008, TANF distributed its highest percentages of funds to African Americans and white Americans (receiving 34.2% and 31.5% respectively), but 2009 statistics from the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan show 25.8% of blacks and 25.3% of Hispanics below the poverty line, compared to 12.5% of Asians and only 9.4% of whites. Federal funding is being distributed disproportionately amongst racial demographics, but the stereotype wants us to believe otherwise. Plus, these numbers show, poverty affects all groups of people in the U.S. – it shouldn’t be represented as a simple distinction between poor black and poor white people.

Another aggravating aspect of the “welfare queen” myth is the notion that a person receiving TANF benefits scoops them up month by month and uses them not for rent or other necessities, but for illegal drugs or items they couldn’t otherwise pay for (hence the “welfare Cadillac”). This couldn’t be further from reality. Government-subsidized cash assistance isn’t going to make someone rich – in Pennsylvania, the maximum amount a mother with two children can receive in most counties is $403 per month. Recipients have trouble pulling their families out of poverty at all, and end up in the same spot once their benefits expire. Plus, welfare reform laws limit the amount of time a family is eligible to receive benefits, five years being the max. Exceptions to the rule are possible, but they are few and far between.

Assuming that single mothers who rely on cash assistance are addicts, lazy, or otherwise at fault for the inability to stay afloat financially perpetuates unfair stereotypes about black women and women in general. Approximately 90% of Americans receiving cash assistance benefits are single mothers. There are reasons why they cannot free themselves from poverty – the system is broken and failing them. Unemployment rates are bad, but employment opportunities don’t equal an even playing field for women. We wrote last month that the gender wage gap didn’t significantly change last year, leaving the female-to-male earnings ratio at 0.77, the same as it was in 2008. The situation is worse for most women of color.

Domestic violence keeps women in poverty as well. There is an area of TANF designated to serve victims of domestic violence (the overwhelming majority of which are female), but the Family Violence Option (FVO) is inefficient to the point of being dangerous. Alex DiBranco gives a few examples, such as shelters not being considered a “proper address,” paperwork and red tape ruling the process, and sometimes even a lack of respect for the confidentiality and safety for the victims – their information was shared with their abusive partners. In a 2009 survey (PDF) of 600 staff members from TANF and other legal-aid programs, only 14 percent of respondents said that the TANF family violence responses work well in their states, with 43 percent saying that fewer than half of family violence victims were able to access TANF benefits.

Unfortunately, the reality of cash assistance programs in the U.S. has become bleaker in recent weeks, when Congress deferred renewal of the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund. The TANF ECF expired on September 30, although advocates are pushing once again for an extension during the post-election “lame-duck” session in November. The ECF helped to create 250,000 jobs since the start of the recession in September 2007, and now these funds have been cut off. Here in Pennsylvania, cash assistance benefits haven’t increased in over twenty years. The way to improve welfare is through advocacy, as legislators clearly aren’t going to do it on their own. This post lists some ways to get involved in the fight for equal pay and an end to poverty.

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13 Responses to Debunking the Myth of the “Welfare Queen”: Who Actually Receives TANF Benefits?

  1. Bill says:

    The Statistics link above is for 2010 data. Why wasn’t the most current data used? Is it because it showed white poverty is now a hair under 10%?

  2. Norman says:

    James, it’s you that can’t comprehend what is right in front of you. You are comparing two different statistics that don’t line up. First of all, the TANF numbers are the racial breakdown of the total recipients of welfare. The poverty statistics are for racial populations as a whole. 9.4 percent of whites are below the poverty line, but that doesn’t mean that only 9.4 percent of TANF recipients should be white, because whites are still the vast majority of the population.

    223 million Americans are white. 39 million are black. If 9.4 percent of whites are below the poverty line then that’s almost 21 million whites in poverty. If 24.8 percent of blacks are living in poverty then that’s over 9 and a half million blacks. Look again at the percentages receiving welfare and then tell me who is collecting benefits at a higher ratio.

  3. Jen says:

    Exactly, whyicare. Thanks for posting.

  4. whyicare says:

    We should add one more group to the welfare program. The greedy corporations who receive handout from government and then reward executives with 7 figure bonuses. These are the welfare kings that we the average Joe should be lambasting. Instead we are picking sides on individuals who are receiving $400 monthly checks. Yes, there are individuals who are abusing the systems. But nothing comes close comparing with the corporate welfare kings.

  5. Jack says:

    Thanks, James, that was succinct as I was struggling with that, having little background in statistics. Further, is it true that most female TANF recipients are single mothers and most of those are recently out of an abusive relationship?

  6. James says:

    Well, NJGuy, actually if you take that portion of the population use the data provided, and realize that the portion fo black in poverty is much higher than that of whites, yet whites are proportionally on welfare at a larger ratio compared to their incidence of poverty, then I guess that would kind of blow your theory to smithereens. But then you probably don’t know how to comprehend what’s right in front of you. That was the whole point of this article, and you failed to weigh any of it.

  7. Jim says:

    Did you not read the whole article? it than goes on to say the percentage of each race and less than 1/10 of whites are on TANF while a little less than 1/4 of blacks are on TANF, don’t warp the Facts to put down any one race. I know what its like to be on TANF.
    A single father in Thurston county WA only receives $385 at most, and with out a job its even worse because not everyone lives within a reasonable distance from Tumwater, where there workfirst program is required for the unemployed, I had to drive 140 miles every week with only $25 twice a month for gas assistance to get to workfirst every week, I owed $300 a month to live in a rundown camper trailer. considering that pullups are around $20 for 35 pullups and extra gas. I found I didnt even have enough for my electric bill. “welfare Cadillac” my butt.

  8. Tonia says:

    Great point,
    But let’s make sure that you are very clear about what you are saying. A large amount of the Africian Americian populatation receives assistance. But it is our White Americans, that have the largest number receiving assistance.

  9. NJguy says:

    When you state that african americans recieve 34% of welfare benefits it would put it into better perspective if you also included that they are less than 13% of the population. Pretty easy to surmise that it is a major problem for blacks when you know that.

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