The long shadow of the “welfare queen” narrative

The long shadow of the “welfare queen” narrative

The majority of public benefits recipients are white, but racist narratives harm benefits access for low-income people of all races.

By Emily Gallion, Grants & Metrics Manager/Advocacy Manager

Some misconceptions about public assistance are easily debunked: Fraud rates in these programs are extremely low, the majority of people who receive assistance are white, and most participants who can work do.

It is more difficult to address the racialization of government benefits discussions. This is because policies such as work requirements that may seem racially neutral first appeared in a much different context.

Many lawmakers made little effort to hide the intent of these policies. Early resistance to public benefits programs included concerns about the economy, which was reliant on low-wage Black laborers.

As one lawmaker said, “I can’t find anyone to iron my shirts!”

In this blog, we will tackle the difficult history of public benefits access for Black households — and how stereotypes about low income people of color have led to policies that are harmful to people of all races.

Demonization of Black Welfare Recipients

Particularly in the South, states added restrictive policies in the 1900s to prevent Black families from accessing aid programs. Some states restricted aid to domestic or agricultural workers, which were predominantly Black. Louisiana limited aid to families during cotton picking season.

As a result, 90% of Black women laborers were initially ineligible for unemployment and Social Security programs, and two thirds were still excluded a decade later, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Some of the worst examples of discrimination in public benefits programs come from the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, created in 1935 to support children living in poverty. This program had origins in mother’s pensions for widows and would later develop into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Many restrictions to the ADC originated from racist ideas about Black women, especially Black mothers. Some of these included so-called “man-in-the-house” or “suitable home” policies, which targeted Black and unmarried mothers. 

For example, in the three months after Louisiana restricted ADC funding to children whose mothers were “unsuitable” for unmarried sex, 95% of the 6,000 children removed from the program were Black.

Lawmakers expressed particular concern that Black women would have more children solely to increase their benefits. One man, Mississippi State Representative David H. Glass, stated, “The negro woman, because of child welfare assistance, [is] making it a business, in some cases of giving birth to illegitimate children.”

Rep. Glass also introduced a 1958 bill in Mississippi to order sterilizations of women who gave birth to children while receiving benefits. The state of Ohio is one of several to consider similar forced sterilization policies.

The Welfare Queen Myth

These derogatory narratives about Black women appeared more recently in the “welfare queen” hysteria of the 70s. During Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, he spoke of a “woman from Chicago” who earned $150,000 a year from government checks.

This woman was a real person named Linda Taylor who did receive nearly $9,000 in benefits by using fraudulent names and addresses. Ms. Taylor was a biracial woman with a complicated personal history. Her all-white school expelled her at age 6. At age 14, she gave birth to her first child. Several psychiatrists and lawyers stated that she experienced mental illness and seemed incapable of telling the truth.

This is not to present Ms. Taylor as an innocent victim — some historians also believe she committed a variety of more severe crimes, including kidnapping, child abuse, and even murder. However, she never faced prosecution for any of these suspected crimes. Media coverage of her life focused on her welfare fraud instead.

In total, the county spent $50,000 to convict Ms. Taylor. Her story was amplified to foster the belief that welfare fraud was widespread — in reality, just 1 percent of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s annual budget was lost to fraud and abuse, with the majority of ADC mispayments originating from simple mistakes.

A Lasting Legacy

These ideas — that poor people, especially people of color, are lazy, deceitful, and require harsh penalties to coerce them to work — persist in our public benefits system today. TANF, which replaced ADC, still includes language about marriage and unplanned pregnancies that calls to memory the “man-in-the-home” policies of the original program.

Stated Goals of Temporary assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Ohio’s TANF program, Ohio Works First (OWF), is difficult for people living in poverty to qualify for. Families can receive OWF for a maximum of three years (lower than the federal standard of five years. To qualify, a family’s gross income can only be 50 percent of the federal poverty level. This is $630/month ($7,560 annually) for a family of three. OWF recipients are subject to strict work requirements with no exception for adults who are ill, pregnant, elderly, or responsible for childcare.

Due in part to these requirements, over 80% of cases in Ohio are child-only, which typically means the child is living with a family member who is not their parent. According to the Center for Community Solutions, Ohio is second in the nation by number of child-only families, behind California but ahead of New York.

While stable, long-term income is a worthwhile goal for people living in poverty, there is little evidence that work requirements in public benefits programming accomplish this. Analysis of multiple studies by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that work requirements ultimately do not reduce poverty — and some families fall into deeper poverty while participating in these programs.

It’s true that work requirements in programs such as TANF and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) do result in modest initial gains in employment. However, these employment increases are not enough to lift families out of poverty. They are also generally not sustained long-term and do not address barriers such as health issues and childcare.

Work requirements disproportionately impact people of color. They are more likely to experience challenges like high local unemployment, transportation barriers, and poor physical and mental health. This, along with alleged bias by caseworkers, may be why people of color are significantly more likely to be sanctioned for work requirements.

Research also shows that people who lose benefits due to work requirements meet conditions that should make them exempt. One study of Tennessee’s TANF funds found around 30 percent of sanctions were made in error.

SNAP also comes with work requirements, which some counties in the state of Ohio are exempt from due to high unemployment rates. These counties are predominantly white and rural, despite that areas with highest rates of unemployment are typically Black and urban. 

This is because the state of Ohio administers exemptions at the county level, obscuring pockets of high unemployment within counties. According to analysis by the Center for Community Solutions in 2018, 97% of people living in exempt counties were white. 

The same report determined that seven Ohio cities that could qualify for the exemption were home to 40 percent of Ohio’s Black population and over half of Black Ohioans who live in poverty.

Closing Thoughts

It is particularly cruel to characterize people of color as dependent on government assistance when these same programs contain racialized language and policies. While these policies disproportionately impact people of color, efforts to weaken safety net programming harm all people living in poverty.

We support policies that help the people we serve to live a healthy, active lifestyle. We couldn’t do this work without programs like SNAP and TANF. It is our hope that we can implement policies that treat people living in poverty with dignity and respect.

For up-to-date information on policies such as SNAP, you can sign up for advocacy alerts from our partners at the Ohio Association of Foodbanks and Feeding America.


The Social Determinants of Health: Connecting the dots between race, health equity, and the food landscape

The Social Determinants of Health: Connecting the dots between race, health equity, and the food landscape

How racial differences in food access contribute to poorer health outcomes for communities of color

By: Caitlyn McIntosh, Development Manager and Emily Gallion, Grant & Advocacy Manager

You may have seen headlines recently that Black communities are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis. Nationally, Black individuals account for about double the proportion of the COVID-19 death toll as the portion of the overall population they represent.

Some public health officials have received criticism for suggesting that the correlation is primarily due to higher rates of obesity and other chronic diseases among the Black community. However, the relationship between chronic diseases, race, poverty, and food insecurity is much more complicated, and it has everything to do with the social determinants of health.

While “social determinants of health” may seem to be a relatively new term in the public health space, it was used as early as 2004 by the World Health Organization (WHO), which defines it as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” 

The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also recognized the social determinants of health, defining it as “life-enhancing resources, such as food supply, housing, economic and social relationships, transportation, education, and health care, whose distribution across populations effectively determines length and quality of life.” 

A growing body of research suggests that these resources can have a profound effect on an individual’s health – even the length of their life – and that the unequal distribution of these resources contributes to inequity in the healthcare system.

We at The Foodbank are not experts in public health. However, we do have a responsibility to stay knowledgeable about the way food insecurity intersects with other aspects of people’s wellbeing. In fact, food insecurity is closely linked to health outcomes later in life.

While the terms “food insecurity” and “hunger” are sometimes used interchangeably, “hunger” refers to the physical feeling associated with a lack of food, but food insecurity, defined as the ability to obtain enough food to live a healthy, active lifestyle, is a much more complex issue. 

As such, not all people experiencing food insecurity are necessarily starving, and many experience higher-than-average rates of obesity. This may be due to the survival strategy of purchasing cheaper, calorie-dense foods to meet basic dietary needs. Over time, this contributes to issues such as obesity, and heart disease.

According to Feeding America’s Hunger in America 2014 study, over one in five Feeding America households report having to choose between purchasing food and paying for medical expenses every month

Food insecurity and poor health outcomes also contribute to a cycle of poverty and poor health, which keeps families trapped in patterns that can last generations. Many Feeding America households report having to choose between buying food and paying for medical care. Coping mechanisms such as underusing medications, avoiding preventative care, and failure to adhere to a medically-necessary diet (such as for treatment for diabetes) can lead to higher medical costs and poorer health in the long-term.

As people return to work, concerns of food security are still highly prevalent. Ohio food insecurity rates have doubled due to the coronavirus, jumping from 13.9% to 23%. We saw that same trend here at The Foodbank with visits to our drive thru pantry. About 2,000 families came to visit us in February and 4,684 came in March. Our numbers continued to rise throughout April, finishing out at over 8,000 families.

According to the Dayton Daily News, one in seven Ohioans are still unemployed. Many families are still focusing on trying to pay rent, mortgages, and other bills, leaving little to no room for a food budget. At our June 6 mass distribution in Greene County, we saw 667 families. What is unique about this distribution is that of those families, 521 were new to the food assistance network. This tells us that although many businesses have been able to reopen, people are still seeing emergencies everyday as a result of the pandemic.

Another often-cited contributor to health outcomes is food access, namely, whether an individual lives in a food desert. An area is defined as a food desert if it is high-poverty with no neighborhood supermarket. (The USDA includes several levels to this definition, which include the percent of individuals with access to transportation, the percent of people living in poverty, and even an area’s rural or urban classification.)

Food access and food insecurity are distinct as food insecurity refers to an individual’s ability to afford food (a function of poverty) whereas food access refers to an individual’s ability to obtain food (a function of environment and geography, which is also a function of poverty). Somebody with low food insecurity may live down the block from a supermarket, but still be unable to afford food, while somebody living in a food desert may be able to afford healthy food, but have no grocery stores nearby.

Living in a food desert is associated with similar health outcomes as food insecurity, including substantially increased risks of obesity and diabetes. Families living in food deserts are often forced to shop at corner markets and convenience stores, which typically offer limited, high-cost, or low-quality selections of fresh produce and protein items.

Food access and food equity go hand-in-hand because areas that are USDA-recognized food deserts are disproportionately communities of color and high-poverty areas. While food access is inherently regional, research from the New York Law School Racial Justice Project has estimated that Black and Latino households are half as likely and one-third as likely to have access to a supermarket, respectively.

A screencap of the USDA’s Food Access Atlas, which shows geographic regions that are low income (LI) and low food access (LA) at varying distances from the supermarket. The Foodbank’s service territory is outlined in black.

In addition to food access issues, food insecurity itself is also racialized. In the United states, 21.2% of Black households, 16.2% of Hispanic households and 10.2% of other/non-hispanic households were food insecure in 2018, compared to 8.1% of white households.

So, what does all of this have to do with COVID-19?

While it may be simple to explain the correlation between race and COVID-19 deaths as due to obesity rates — implicitly blaming victims for overeating — this ignores the reality that many people in high-poverty, predominantly black areas face factors beyond their control that contribute to poor health, such as an inability to afford healthy food or an inability to travel to obtain it.

In fact, a June 10 working paper by MIT researchers found that even after controlling for income level, health insurance coverage, rates of chronic disease such as obesity and diabetes, and public transit usage, counties with higher numbers of Black residents had higher rates of COVID-19 infections.

According to Chris Knittel, the study’s senior author, we have to look beyond these simple explanations to understand why the Black community is facing such a high toll in the COVID-19 crisis.

“The causal mechanism has to be something else,” said Knittel. “If I were a public official, I’d be looking at differences in the quality of insurance, conditions such as chronic stress, and systemic discrimination.”

To see the actions we are taking to promote equitable access to food in our service area, view our impact statement here.

If you’re curious about more of our network data or other social issues such as these, follow us @thefoodbankinc on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and Linkedin!