Welfare “Reform” Debate Tainted By Racism, Sexism

June 20, 2003

University Park, Pa. – Racism and sexism, politically taboo in most cases, still taint the political process when it comes to welfare “reform,” preventing poor citizens from influencing legislation that significantly affects them, a Penn State political scientist says.

The poor are rarely invited to participate in congressional hearings on welfare and usually receive scant respect because of a number of prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about welfare recipients, according to Dr. Holloway Sparks, assistant professor of political science.

Sparks is author of “Queens, Teens and Model Mothers: Race, Gender and the Discourse of Welfare Reform,” a chapter in the recently published book, “Race, Welfare and the Politics of Reform” (University of Michigan Press, 2003). She notes that during the 1996 welfare reform debate, senators and representatives often reduced the complexity of American poverty to a simplistic, racist and sexist caricature.

The welfare stereotypes that emerged during that time portrayed people of color, especially women, as depraved, irresponsible abusers of the system, thus destroying their ability to take a legitimate and authoritative role in the dialogue over welfare. Sparks says, “Such stereotyping meant that the citizens with the most at stake in this policy discussion were the least likely to have input.”

Welfare reform is once again on the congressional agenda, with President Bush’s proposed legislation reauthorizing Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), the welfare “reform” program passed in 1996. The Senate is now weighing a version of TANF, already passed by the House.

In 1996, numerous legislators and witnesses made references to “welfare queen” stereotypes to justify the “tough love” features of the proposed legislation. Welfare queens were portrayed as usually African-Americans (although sometimes Hispanic), who deliberately avoided both work and marriage; spent their welfare checks on liquor, drugs and fast cars; and produced large broods of children so as to qualify for even a larger government dole – a deliberate misconception.

The truth is that welfare is overwhelmingly the domain of women and children of all races, with adult men making up but 4 percent of welfare recipients for the federal fiscal year 1995, according to the chapter According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the welfare recipients in 1994-95 were in fact children, a situation that has little changed. The notion that “welfare queens” breed swarms of children to support their lifestyle is patently false, however. Sparks cites Department of Health and Human Services figures showing that the average welfare mother still only has two children.

“Another set of scapegoats has been teen mothers. Republicans and Democrats alike chastised unmarried teens for having sex at all, for failing to use birth control properly, and, most of all, for intentionally becoming pregnant,” says the Penn State researcher. "

While the subject of `children having children’ loomed large in the debates, the number of unmarried teen mothers actually receiving AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in 1994-95 was less than 0.5 percent of the total caseload and just 2 percent of all parents on AFDC.

“Like the welfare queen stereotype, the teen mother image was also ‘racialized,’ both because the average citizen wrongly assumed that most teen welfare mothers were African-Americans, and because legislators often closely juxtaposed statistics about teen pregnancy with statistics on illegitimacy in the African-American community,” Sparks notes.

Those attempting to link these two sets of statistics overlooked the fact that most births out of wedlock (69 percent) occurred among adult women, not teens, and that White teens were responsible for 70 percent of all teen births, she adds.

These stereotypes played an important role in undercutting the influence of welfare recipients in Washington. During the mid-1990s, more than a dozen congressional committees and subcommittees conducted welfare reform hearings. Among those testifying were then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; more than 160 members of Congress; a dozen governors; a half-dozen mayors; two dozen welfare administrators; at least 60 academic experts; more than 75 representatives from nonprofit organizations; and a hundred representatives from the business sector, according to Sparks’ chapter.

“Of the nearly 600 witnesses, however, only 17 were welfare recipients,” she says. “Even this figure overstates the participation of welfare recipients because just four of these witnesses were actually still receiving AFDC at the time of their testimony. Four more were receiving transitional benefits such as child care assistance, and the remaining nine were former recipients, among them one member of Congress, Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey, from California.”

Although some of these women were praised by legislators for being “model mothers” who escaped the “welfare trap,” Sparks notes, “Welfare recipients ultimately had little effect on the dialogue about reform in spite of their first-hand experience with AFDC and their immediate interest in the outcome of the reform process. Even when former welfare recipients like Tandi Graff challenged legislators to ‘listen to people like me,’ those demands were easily, if arbitrarily, dismissed.”

“The contemptuous dismissal of poor people from the debate on welfare reform raises distressing questions for a society that claims to be democratic,” Sparks adds. “We should not submit to the argument that poor people lack the moral standing or competence to take part in political life, nor should we allow the joys and burdens of participation in democratic life to become the exclusive privilege of the wealthy.”


EDITORS: Dr. Sparks can be reached at hsparks@psu.edu by email.
Paul Blaum (814) 865-9481 pab15@psu.edu
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 vfong@psu.edu