Picture the “Welfare Queen”. I know you can because you’ve absorbed the same images I have, from hundreds of campaign ads, news reports, and the sneering comments from dozens of relatives, co-workers or neighbors. Some typical components:
- Several kids by several fathers, all absent
- The disheveled kids wander the hood while she plants herself on the porch, awaiting the next fat check
- Off to the grocery store: steak & lobster, and a handful of lottery tickets
- Was tutored in the welfare system by her mother, and her girls are now being groomed to carry on the “family” tradition
Though I reject this image, the nature of our implicit bias is such that I must admit this is implanted in my subconscious.
Such an image was promoted by Ronald Reagan with his account about a Black woman Linda Taylor who allegedly created multiple identities and swindled taxpayers out of thousands of dollars. His characterization of her as the “Welfare Queen” has plagued women of color through the decades.
I recently spent a Saturday afternoon on a Reality Tour, a bus trip organized by a local group (details in Resources). We were introduced to St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, the city’s new “Tent City” for homeless people on Exchange Blvd., the House of Mercy, and other sites related to homelessness and poverty.
The stop that impacted me most was the parking lot of the Department of Social Services on St. Paul St. where I met the “Welfare Queen”.
LaVonia got on the bus to speak with us. She was Black, and stout, and all the implicit bias I described came rushing forth. Then she began to tell her story:
She is the mother of two girls whose father had left them some time back. She described the process she endured to secure some support while she worked feverishly to build a non-dependent life. We were given the “NYS Application for Certain Benefits and Services”. I have never encountered a more complex, ponderous, intimidating form in my lifetime. 18 pages of excruciating detail, tiny print, followed by 6 tedious pages of “Notices, Assignments, Authorizations and Consents”. I secured a mortgage for our home with far less paperwork or laborious detail (this is not hyperbole).
The form was just a beginning. LaVonia lives on the west side. She has no car, and that meant walking – about 2 miles each way – to this office. Imagine: the last leg of your trek is across this Bausch St. bridge in mid-winter.
Many times, having completed the required info as well as she could, she would secure an appointment, arrive, then wait, sometimes hours, before being served, only to be told she didn’t have what was needed – e.g., birth certificates for herself and her children, receipts, medical forms, tax info, etc. etc. This meant setting another appointment. Then back across the bridge, and home.
Once she finally obtained assistance, her life became a focused, exhaustive effort to get off of it. The assistance mandated a WEP assignment (Work Experience Program)– a job that was boring but required. She also beefed up her pursuit of a college degree, attending Brockport for classes. With the demands of the job and school and study, she rarely was able to spend time with her children. The welfare system also demands a quarterly in-person appointment to verify that all of the requirements are still being met. This means another form, and another trek to that office, another wait, another shot of “hope-I’ve-got-everything” anxiety.
All of this was conveyed by LaVonia without a hint of self-pity, and with a sense of dogged determination (she is within weeks of graduating). Yes, the system is incredibly aggravating, but she has a passion for seeing this through, forging a future in which her children will not have to endure the same.
To be clear: I’m sure there are people scamming the system. Now that I’ve seen the system, though, I have to believe they are few. This experience bolstered my belief that this convoluted, labyrinthine behemoth needs a comprehensive overhaul.
My implicit bias about the Welfare Queen took a direct hit that day. I also know better than to think this bias won’t surface again, unbidden, unwelcomed. But there will be LaVonia’s face and voice and story to belie the image.
Now your turn:
- What images do you carry regarding race, poverty, people on welfare?
- How can you/will you act to challenge those images, to get in touch with the realities of the lives of people you know only by stereotype?
- How can you test out the judgments and biases that fester in you?
- How are you complicit in this system as it exists?
- And what actions will counter your complicity?
- One assessment of the “Queen” image, from Josh Levin: “Four decades later, Reagan’s soliloquies on welfare fraud are often remembered as shameless demagoguery.”
- Many accounts report that Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” and that this woman in Chicago was a fictional character. In 2007, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote that “the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen [was] a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud.”
- MSNBC’s Chris Matthews says “The whole thing is racist malarkey—a coded reference to black indolence and criminality designed to appeal to working-class whites.”
“Myth of the Welfare Queen” A Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s portrait of women on the line. David Zucchino
Excellent 9-min. video from Robin DiAngelo: Being nice is not going to end racism
National Coalition Building Institute Workshop: “Privilege” on Thursday Nov. 29, 9:00 – 4:00. Details
Workshop: Tues. Nov. 13, 7 – 8:30 pm: “Unpacking Waking Up White” by Debby Irving. Led by Calvin Eaton at 540 W. Main St.. Registration requested here.
Follow Ally Henny on Facebook – a Black woman with clear, concise messages to white folks.
The Reality Tour is organized by the Social Welfare Action Alliance. Tour leader Ricardo Adams tells me the next tour will be in the Spring. I will post the info when I receive it.
The United Christian Leadership Ministry has been in existence since
2013, and is led by Rev. Lewis Stewart. They conduct an array of community organizing efforts that focus especially law enforcement systemic changes. For example, their efforts led to the Roch. Police Dept. requiring body-worn cameras on officers. See the variety of activities on FB: United Christian Leadership Ministry
For further information, and/or to discuss possible involvement, contact:
Relton Roland: firstname.lastname@example.org or Mike Bleeg: email@example.com, or 585-704-1016.
And again, you can find information on Howard Eagle’s activities at his FB page.
Attend: Police Accountability Boards: A Panel Discussion and Community Forum; co-sponsored by Monroe County Bar Assoc., the Greater Rochester Assoc. for Women Attorneys, the Rochester Black Bar Assoc., and others. Tues. Nov. 13, 5:30 – 7:30 MCC High Falls Conference Room 321 State St. Details.
Attend: Truth Commission, Organized by Just Leadership (WNY branch) Friday Nov. 16, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Hear from people directly impacted by a variety of unjust practices in the legal system. Mt. Olivet Church, 141 Adams St. For more info.
Encourage your friends, co-workers, family members, and neighbors to subscribe to this blog!