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The New "Welfare Queens" | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The New "Welfare Queens"

I am deriving a quirky and somewhat devious pleasure from the current rhetoric surrounding the AIG bonus debacle. I've noticed that members of Congress, media outlets, and the general public are discussing wealthy AIG executives in language typically reserved for poor, black mothers. I must admit that I am enjoying watching the nation scapegoat rich, white guys rather than women who look like me.

In the feminist academic circles where I live and work it is an article of faith that public officials use anti-welfare language to pummel poor black women who make use of financial assistance from the state. Nearly 25 years ago Ronald Reagan scored political points and crafted a surprisingly sticky mythology of the "welfare queen." He whipped up zealous, self-righteous outrage among middle income Americans by imagining hordes of women having babies, buying electronics, and growing fat and complacent on the backs of hard-working, taxpaying, white Americans. (I can't wait to read comments on this post, which will undoubtedly reiterate the poor people-bashing rhetoric of the Right)

The Democratic Party has also been willing to employ this characterization of African American women. President Bill Clinton signaled his centrist credentials by promising to end welfare as we know it and by insisting on "personal responsibility" as though poor women struggling to raise their families on dollars a day were not already responsible.

Those of us on the intellectual left pushed back against this rhetoric by pointing out that social welfare benefits to poor families are a tiny fraction of the federal budget. We argued against the stigmatizing effects of labeling poor women using the derogatory language of "cheats." We pointed out that citizens in a democracy have responsibilities to one another and collective interests in ensuring the welfare of children and families.

This week "welfare queen" discourse has been used to describe the bonus-receiving AIG executives. It is now these wealthy private employees who are labeled as greedy, taxpayer-money wasters. I chuckle a little with postmodern pleasure as I watch the black President chide AIG execs for living off the public dole and as he promises to restore a national commitment to reward for hard work and accountability. It's funny to watch AIG defenders point out that their bonuses comprise only a small percentage of the overall bailout money. It is satisfying to see the public wrath deployed against a different group of people.

For once poor, black women are not the source of all our national ills.

Still, the similarity in rhetoric makes me concerned that we are engaged in another round of useless scapegoating that keeps our national attention diverted from the bigger scoundrels in the system.

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