Programs that should be crafted around people’s needs are instead designed to deal with a problem that doesn’t exist.
At a campaign rally in 1976, Ronald Reagan introduced the welfare queen into the public conversation about poverty: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
The perception of who benefits from a policy is of material consequence to how it is designed. For the past 40 years, U.S. welfare policy has been designed around Reagan’s mythical welfare queen—with very real consequences for actual families in need of support.
Though it was Reagan who gave her the most salient identity, the welfare queen emerged from a long and deeply racialized history of suspicion of and resentment toward families receiving welfare in the United States. Today, 20 years after welfare reform was enacted, this narrative continues to inform policy design by dictating who is “deserving” of support and under what conditions. Ending the reign of the welfare queen over public policy means recognizing this lineage, identifying how these stereotypes continue to manifest, and reorienting policy design around families as they are—not who they are perceived to be.