By the time the welfare queen finally emerged on the national stage, the American public was primed for a face to be attached to the perceived waste, fraud, and abuse they saw as enabled by indulgent government programs and a lack of accountability. By 1989, 64 percent of Americans felt that “welfare benefits make poor people dependent and encourage them to stay poor,” shoring up the political support for reform. When President Bill Clinton declared an end to “welfare as we know it” in 1996, time limits, work requirements, and strict sanctions for noncompliance were presented as repudiations of that system.
In fact, they had the opposite effect: Rather than eliminating the myth of the welfare queen, these reforms codified it by shaping policy choices around the prevention of willful idleness and criminal behavior. As a result, welfare reform created a system that expects the worst from families seeking assistance, and in so doing further entrenches a presumed link between poverty and poor character in popular discourse. This orientation is clear in the punitive policies that appear in response to nonexistent problems.
Fifteen states, for example, drug-test applicants as part of their screening process for TANF. These policies stem from a perception that people in poverty, and in particular welfare recipients and people of color, are more likely to use illegal drugs, despite evidence contradicting this claim. Predictably, this reliance on stereotypes rather than evidence when designing these policies has proven wasteful and inefficient, costing Missouri, for example, $336,297 to identify a mere 48 positive tests among nearly 40,000 TANF recipients.
Similarly, 15 states prohibit families from receiving higher benefit levels if a new baby is born while the household is receiving assistance, which “stem[s] from a theory that cash aid serves as a disincentive for poor women to marry and an incentive for them to have more children.” In fact, these policies simply hurt poor children (to say nothing of the absurdity of presuming a woman would have another baby to receive at most an extra few dollars a day, given that the estimated costs of having another child are around $8,000 per year).
Over time, politicians have contrived modern equivalents of the welfare queen, with policy implications of their own. Newt Gingrich infamously lamented a food-stamp recipient who used her benefits to fly to Hawaii at taxpayers’ expense. As anyone who has actually enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would know, benefits are tightly restricted to food products off of the shelf and can’t even be used to buy other necessities, such as diapers, much less a plane ticket.
Images like these have spurred a new wave of policy restrictions around how benefits are accessed and distributed. Federal legislation that was passed in 2012 requires states to prevent TANF recipients from using EBT cards in liquor stores, casinos, and strip clubs, despite minimal evidence benefits were used in these establishments. In California alone, this policy resulted in a significant diversion of time and money to deactivate over 6,500 ATMs across the state, including in rural and tribal areas where the nearest ATM may simply be in a prohibited location.