The Republican presidential primary is haunted. Mitt Romney is afraid of an entitlement society, a social welfare state. Rick Santorum is alarmed by the low rates of marriage and high rates of children born out of wedlock in the African-American community.

Newt Gingrich has decried the lack of work ethic in low-income, particularly black, neighborhoods. He has recently come under fire for his attempts in South Carolina to brand President Obama as the “food stamp president,” claiming that Obama has put more people on food stamps than any other president (which is actually false).

Since food stamps remain one of the few federally administered welfare benefits, calling Obama the “food stamp president” is tantamount to calling him the “welfare president.” So if President Obama is the “food stamp president,” is Michelle Obama the “food stamp first lady”? Or “welfare first lady”? Or “Welfare Queen”?


If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The monster beneath this rhetoric is the Welfare Queen, the fabled boogeywoman of the 1976 Reagan presidential campaign.

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands,” Reagan told enraptured crowds at stump speeches. “Her tax-free income alone is over $150,000.”

As the narrative developed, she was, of course, black. She was promiscuous and she was lazy. She was also a lie.

When reporters investigated this story, they found only one case that even remotely supported Reagan’s claim. The woman’s name was Linda Taylor, from the south side of Chicago. She had defrauded the state of only $8,000 and had only four aliases.

But facts be damned.


As a child of the 80’s, the image of the baby-popping, Cadillac-driving welfare queen was seared into my mind. But so was the image of my mother: an educated black woman who waited for marriage and her 30’s to have children. My mother embodied four generations of higher education and even went on to earn a doctoral degree*.

She was also a welfare mother.

And, according to Reaganomics, she was the bane of society. By their calculations, my mother’s predicament was her fault, and her fault alone. Never mind the nationwide recession or that my father (well into his 30’s and with his own set of degrees*) left her alone with two small children. Never mind her dogged attempts to find work and the racism and sexism that waited for her at each interview. She was part of a plague rippling across the country. Part of a racialized, sexualized—but faceless—army.

Now that army is back.

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