In the early 1980s the Reagan Administration engaged in an active campaign to demonize welfare and welfare recipients. Those who received public assistance were depicted as lazy free-loaders who burdened good, hard-working taxpayers. Race and gender played major parts in this framing of public assistance: the image of the “welfare queen” depicted those on welfare as lazy, promiscuous women who used their reproductive ability to have more children and thus get more welfare. This woman was implicitly African American, such as the woman in an anecdote Reagan told during his 1976 campaign (and repeated frequently) of a “welfare queen” on the South Side of Chicago who supposedly drove to the welfare office to get her check in an expensive Cadillac (whether he had actually encountered any such woman, as he claimed, was of course irrelevant).
The campaign was incredibly successful: once welfare recipients were depicted as lazy, promiscuous Black women sponging off of (White) taxpayers, public support for welfare programs declined. The negative attitude toward both welfare and its recipients lasted after Reagan left office; the debate about welfare reform in the mid-1990s echoed much of the discourse from the 1980s. Receiving public assistance was shameful; being a recipient was stigmatized.
Abby K. recently found an old Sesame Street segment called “I Am Somebody.” Jesse Jackson leads a group of children in an affirmation that they are “somebody,” and specifically includes the lines “I may be poor” and “I may be on welfare”:
(Originally found at the Sesame Street website.)
I realized just how effective the demonization of welfare has been when I was actually shocked to hear kids, in a show targeted at other kids, being led in a chant that said being poor or on welfare shouldn’t be shameful and did not reduce their worth as human beings. Can you imagine a TV show, even on PBS, putting something like this on the air today? Our public discourse at this point says that being on welfare is shameful, and that those receiving it in fact aren’t “somebody.” They are dependents, lazy loafers, and their kids are just additional burdens on the state; they don’t have the same rights to dignity and respect as other citizens, and they certainly shouldn’t expect to get it.
Of course, the totally confused looks on some of the kids’ faces are hysterical.