Food Stamps & iPhones: The Myth of the Welfare Queen

By Comrade Sloth

I find it interesting that the woman portrayed in the cartoon appears to be black, even though evidence suggests that more whites are on welfare than blacks.

I find it interesting that the woman portrayed in the cartoon appears to be black, even though evidence suggests that more whites are on welfare than blacks.

We’ve all probably seen this in some form or another: a meme with a snarky message to welfare recipients that the American working class is fed up with paying for their luxuries, while struggling to make ends meet in their own households. According to Donald Trump, leading Republican presidential candidate, food stamps create “a society that sits back and says, ‘We’re not going to do anything.’” After all, there’s nothing more integral to the spirit of America than the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality: the belief that anyone, regardless of their circumstances, can prosper and become wealthy if they only put in the time and hard work. If there’s one story Americans love, it’s that of the underdog who starts with nothing, works their way up the corporate ladder, and goes on to enjoy a life of luxury and success; we love it because in this narrative, we can see ourselves. This story of the “American Dream” tells us that by following the rules and maintaining a strong work ethic, we too could one day enjoy that kind of prosperity. It only seems to follow, then, that a lack of financial success must indicate laziness and dishonesty, right?

Maybe not. In 2014, more than 35 percent of American households were on some form of welfare, partially dependent on government assistance to meet the most basic of needs like food and housing. Of those households, only 13.2 percent, or 4.6% of all American families, contained no working adults. So what we are looking at is clearly a little more complex than “get a job like the rest of us”; the picture so commonly presented, that of the unemployed adults relying solely on welfare, actually only represents a tiny minority of recipients. The rest are working-class Americans who simply aren’t making enough at their jobs to get by. This is even more difficult for the 76 percent  of families who care for dependents- children, retirees, and disabled people who cannot work. Still, though, this story of the “welfare queen” continues to be the dominant narrative surrounding the impoverished.

Acting for the benefit of others is demonized because those others are portrayed as unworthy of support.

Acting for the benefit of others is demonized because those others are portrayed as unworthy of support.

In addition to being demonized because of the actions of a marginal few, welfare recipients face another kind of discrimination that may be even more damaging: the disturbing consensus that in order to qualify for benefits, they must meet a culturally contrived standard of what “poverty” really looks like. It’s easy for the middle class to point fingers at a cellphone or a manicured hairstyle and take them as signs that the woman swiping her EBT card at the register doesn’t really need assistance. If the impoverished are going to enjoy the benefits of our tax dollars, it seems, they should be dressed in rags and actively commit to looking the part. However, getting a job without a cellphone is about as practical these days as riding in a horse-drawn wagon to your interview, and hiring teams have admitted that appearance plays a consequential factor in their decision whether or not to hire a candidate. This creates a paradoxical double standard in which poor people are expected to adhere to caricaturizations of impoverishment (shabby appearance, ascetic lifestyle) while also maintaining the tools to rise above their conditions.

On a deeper level, though, we have to carefully examine what this common resentment implies: the notion that those who make less money than the middle class are less worthy of enjoying the comforts most people take for granted. This is easily justified when we can attribute that lack of money to a character flaw rather than the much more frightening thought that, contrary to the popular rhetoric, the “Land of Opportunity” might not be so aptly named after all. By placing the blame on an entity separate from ourselves – the imaginary them instead of the manipulated us— the frustration of struggle is directed toward the only class of people who possess the incentive to change our fractured and exploitative social system.