Welfare Mamas: Dissolving the Black Face

15 Dec


There is an infinite number of misconceptions about women on welfare, black women in particular. Any black woman receiving government aid, be it “welfare… AFDC… food stamps… Medicaid… or WIC,” will find themselves facing debilitating stereotypes, attacking their character and their competence as a parent (Currie 33). These false beliefs are damaging to the way we perceive black women and mothers. Viewing them in a defamatory manner allows for people to undercut what it means to be a mother, resulting in a lack of appreciation and respect for our black mothers. Our welfare system promotes the disenfranchisement of black women by perpetuating negative stereotypes attached to the stigma of being a welfare recipient, and also minimizing the available resources to help these women get on their feet. This paper will provide the historical truths combatting common stereotypes regarding black women and the welfare system; including why it was created, who it was created to help, who is really receiving the aid, and what do these women supposedly look like. Additionally, it will explore what happens to children whose mothers raised them on welfare, and answer the question: Will this cycle of poverty continue through these children, because of their mother’s acceptance of government aid?

the_color_of_welfare1According to society, the myth is that African Americans are the majority of people on AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children) (Abdullah 328). That is exactly what it is, a myth, which is defined as a popular belief or story associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal (www.dictionary.com). Critics claim that welfare is a societal issue, and should be confronted with reality, as opposed to the racist hatred embedded within the institution in which we are put up against (Cooper 1). Welfare programs of all types were created as government funded relief programs, to help people who have lost their income for whatever reason, including disability or age. Unfortunately, whenever the word welfare is used, many people stereotypically associate a Black face with it, not even considering anyone who is white, old, or disabled (1).

Contrary to popular belief, research proves that the largest “welfare program” is Society Security and not AFDC (1). As a way to remove themselves from the negativity surrounding government assistance programs, white people have cleverly masqueraded their participation by calling their program a “retirement plan” (1). Now what is interesting about this, is that both blacks and whites pay into this system, which inevitably ends up going to mostly whites, when they retire and receive their Social Security benefits. The 2000 Census Bureau reports provide compelling results addressing who is actually receiving these welfare benefits. The results invalidate popular belief in reporting a staggering, 61 percent of welfare recipients to be white, leaving blacks at a much lower 33 percent (2). In correctly interpreting these results, it is imperative to understand that whites have a tremendously higher percentage, due to the longevity of their lives. Blacks typically die at a much earlier age, due to a lack of heath care, an underuse of the health care system when available, also because of our overall ailing health due to numerous illnesses that are predisposed to African Americans. Many whites on the other hand, typically have the resources to take better care of themselves, and are therefore prolonging their lives as much as 20 years longer than their black cohorts (3).

Longitudinal studies have been carried out on welfare recipients from 1967 to 1997. This thirty year study focused on poverty among African American women (Hee-Soon 1). In this study of these women’s’ lives, the influence of social roles, socio-economic resources, and social integration were all considered to be at the core of their social adaptation (2). This study concluded that individuals live their lives in important social contexts, regardless of their socio economic status. For example, these women took great pride in their involvement with school, families of orientation, marriage, families of procreation, work situations, and communities (3). As opposed to operating within the assumed stereotypes of poor black women, such as having substance abuse problems, poor participation within the workforce or poor health (16).

As the years have passed there have been several critiques of the welfare system. The major critique was, and still is, that there is still an overabundance of people that are poor and underprivileged, despite the enormity of our countries wealth. During the 1960s, the Lyndon administration enacted several programs that were supposed fix the numerous problems within the welfare system (O’Connor 19). So Medicare and Medicaid were created to provide medical coverage to those who could not afford it themselves; and food stamps were more widely used and available to more people (Michelmore). Through the use of these programs, people were graciously receiving aid from the government and living well off of it too. Several politicians, like Richard Nixon, had negative things to say about “those earning their livings through welfare and not through work” (O’Connor 24). Once elected into office, Nixon carried out his intentions too. Making it his business to cut aid to millions of people receiving government assistance, on top of that the requirements were made harder for people to even qualify for these benefits.

scoreoctober10Regrettably, government funded programs have mercilessly continued to decline in funding and in societal support. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton approved the Welfare Reform Act, which was a bogus attempt to transform the AFDC program into something more beneficial to poor people (185). This Act did the opposite and authorized the same budget cuts and harsh stipulations, disguising it under a new name, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). This program only provided temporary relief for poor families, hence the word temporary in its name. If you were on the program for too long, you were cut off and throw into the workforce, not considering any life circumstances that were preventing them from working in the first place (186). These factors included the lack of skills, lack of education, no transportation, or no child care, for sometimes multiple young children. Not to mention simply being a woman.

Society places such a huge blame on black women, simply for becoming parents and also for falling victim to America’s declining economic system. All the while, not opposing the government, who passed things like the 1996 Welfare Act, which promoted, “job preparation, work, and marriage,” but instituted minimal government funded childcare for working parents, instilled limitations on immigrant welfare benefits, and discouraged out of wedlock pregnancies, which should be against the law (Engrav 8). It is government programs like this that seek to continue the oppression of black women and preserve several negative stereotypes. Where the characterization of black women as, “unfit parents who view their children as nothing more than increases in welfare checks,” is frequently discussed, also the inability to provide assistance with childcare for working black women, is purposely overlooked (Adair 5).

As a result of America’s capitalist patriarchal system favoring male labor, women are paid less than men for work. Women are typically relegated to the domestic work space, which pays a lot less money than any other field of work. Due to women’s “disadvantaged” economic position in society, she finds herself at a greater risk for becoming poor, and becoming dependent on the welfare system (Lord 2). Due to this, and the increase in female welfare recipients, researchers have endorsed the theory recognizing a “feminization of poverty” (2). This theory is reflective of, “female-headed families (which) tend to be poor due to factors related to underemployment, unemployment, and welfare benefits that are below adequate subsistence levels” (2). It is the intersectionality between class, gender and race, which causes black women to maintain an inferior position in society.

Feminist scholars have been attacking the welfare system and their policies for years now. There is no denying that the U.S. welfare system is limiting and tends to shift away from the black woman. The idea that welfare is a “women’s issue” should be publically mandated because, “women’s poverty has everything to do with their socially assigned (and usually willingly assumed) responsibility for children, the lack of childcare, and enduring patterns of gender (and racial) discrimination in education and employment” (Michel 44). Because black women face race, gender and class discrimination by, and within the welfare system, this issue undoubtedly should be marked as a woman’s issue. Unfortunately, being an issue that only plagues women, men fail to acknowledge this as an issue, and fail to address its problematic treatment of underprivileged women of color (44). Any person on welfare is considered to be poor and unemployed, which makes it easy to equate this position to black women and women of color, because they are assumed to be in a lower socio-economic class group than the average white American person; this couldn’t be further than the truth.

welfare-queenThe most common stereotype designated to the black welfare mother is that she is lazy, pathologically bears children, and is economically dependent on government assistance. This caricature has been identified as the “Welfare Queen” (Hill Collins 80). This term dates back to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. This phrase was created when a welfare recipient was accused of having created “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve social security cards, collecting veteran’s benefits” and of course receiving food stamps and welfare benefits using all the different names (The Washington Star 1). She was said to have received “tax-free cash income (totaling) over $150,000” (1). This story was embellished by the newspaper to gain readership, but many parts of it where in fact true. This story marked the beginning of what has now became the ruinous stereotype of a black woman on welfare.

The welfare queen is a phrase that describes economic dependency – the lack of a job and/or income; the presence of a child or children with no father and/or husband; and, finally, a charge on the collective U.S. treasury – a human debt… The welfare queen constitutes a highly materialistic, domineering, and man-less working-class Black woman. Relying on the public dole, Black welfare queens are content to take the hard-earned money of tax paying American’s and remain married to the state. (Hill Collins 80)

This stereotype immensely plagues black women by slandering their character and their morality. Describing black women as “economically dependent” or “human debt” is dehumanizing and allows for society to look down on the black family. It is because of negative beliefs like this, which explains why society holds women as the least valued members of society. And in doing this, black women are therefore the most exploitable and oppressed. Furthermore, upholding the belief that all black women on welfare are “man-less” whores who don’t want to keep their legs closed, perpetuates the idea that black women are incapable of marriage and therefore, of being loved. All of these fallacies were created, due to societies need to justify the mistreatment of black women. And in doing this, justifying their blame of the total deterioration of the American family, on black women (80).

welfare-queenThe way society has been conditioned to view black women is a direct result of these negative stereotypes surrounding the welfare queen. When attempting to understand, why black women? Studies have been conducted to test how far this negativity has been unconsciously embedded into our brains. In the late 1990s, an experiment was conducted to determine to what degree is the welfare queen stereotyped as an African-American woman. In this study groups of people were shown video clips of an African American woman and a white woman, both having the same name, Rhonda. Each woman described the same story, of how they were on welfare and expressed their difficulties while being on it. Upon asking white participants to recall specifics from the interviews, “nearly 80 percent of them recalled the race of the African-American Rhonda. On the other hand, less than 50 percent accurately recalled seeing the white Rhonda” (Gilliam 4-5). These conclusions substantiate the negative association with black women based on the disgrace attached to the welfare queen.

The welfare mother, across all nationalities, is faced with the hardship of raising her children on a very limited monthly income, where “poverty is a frequently highlighted life circumstance” (Cameron 95). The amount of money received by welfare recipients is well below the poverty level, therefore removing any opportunity for economic advancement (Currie 50). These women must learn to budget and balance their checkbooks to the last penny, to ensure that their children have clothes on their backs, food on the table, and that all the bills are at least partially paid. Understanding that these women struggle on a monthly basis just to keep the lights on, is necessary for combatting these negative stereotypes that are assigned to welfare mothers. Being on welfare is not fun, and it is not as easy going as society tries to make us believe. With welfare numbers rising, early researchers claim that, “children are the victims of the (welfare) system, and through them (the children) the system will be perpetuated” (Macaulay 1). With researchers promoting this false belief that children growing up in welfare homes, will grow up to be on welfare, appropriates this antagonistic mindset that society has adopted. Generalized assumptions like this, do no justice in ending the negativity attached with being a welfare recipient. Recent scholars have refuted the idea that these children will do nothing with their lives, claiming that, “the evidence does not support the contention that the welfare system makes children into permanently dependent and pathology-ridden people” (27). So why is this negativity still being perpetuated today? Especially when children from working parent homes tend to have an increase in, “juvenile delinquency… injuries… accidents… emergency room visits… and truancies,” over non-working welfare mothers (Duncan 59). Additionally, “when compared with welfare families mothers in single-parent working families are just as depressed, hostile, and lacking in control of their fate. They spend no more time reading to their children, helping with their children’s homework, or facilitating youth activities” (104). So this negativism that is applied to black welfare mothers is unjustified and unnecessary.

tumblr_inline_nmcn0jkjvg1qj7024_540One resource that has been instituted as a way to wean women off of the welfare program is “work based reform,” called the welfare to work program (41). This program seeks to find jobs for welfare recipients, that pay more than their government issued monthly stipend (41). This program is also supposed to help with “child care and transportation assistance” until these women get on their feet (41). Unfortunately, this program has a strict “work-first model” and does not promote the education of these women (40). Doing this puts them at a disadvantage because the easiest way to achieve economic advancement is through education (Denby 153). Having an education is detrimental in getting more flexible jobs, as well as demanding higher wages. Additionally, when reviewing these “work requirements” for the welfare to work program, the term “work” strictly indicates paid work (Duncan 291). So the care of family members and children is not considered to be work, and is therefore discredited as a means of industry (291). This is a major feminist and womanist issue that continues to be swept under the rug.

Second wave feminists coined the term “the personal is political,” which refers to how “the power relations that affect our lives most intimately, are an expression of politics (aka male patriarchy), and must be named and contested” (Green 115). In challenging the oppressor, a change can be made within the overall system of female oppression, and should then trickle down into other government institutions, such as the welfare system. So what do we do now? How do we get black women, and all women off of welfare, as well as end the cycle for children? Despite government reluctance, these women must educate their children and themselves (Denby 153). In doing this, their children will not only have a positive role model to look up to, but children will also recognize and claim that they deserve more than poverty and government handouts. According to poverty researchers, there is no direct correlation between coming from a family on welfare, and the perpetuation of an alleged welfare cycle once that child becomes an adult. The real correlation has to do with a person’s “present economic status” (Macaulay 28). So it can be concluded, that through economic prosperity, this suppositional cycle can be broken.




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