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What is a Welfare Queen?

Lainie Petersen
Lainie Petersen

Welfare queen is a derogatory label applied by politicians, social critics, and others to describe women who abuse the welfare system by having several children in order to increase their welfare benefits and thus their own standard of living. The image of the welfare queen, an otherwise able-bodied woman who exploits poverty benefits in order to avoid employment, is typically evoked by those who resent the poor as well as those who oppose legislation that provides various types of poverty assistance, including cash, food stamps, and other welfare benefits. The term may also be used in a nonpolitical context by people who resent those who receive government assistance.

In the United States, the myth of the welfare queen began to rise in the early 1980s and was promoted by some conservative politicians to describe women having many children and committing outright fraud in order to receive benefits and to not have to find employment. These stories often depicted women who were lazy and promiscuous, scamming the system and then using their benefits pay for drugs or luxury items. One common version of the welfare queen story depicted a woman driving a Cadillac paid for with her welfare benefits. Welfare queen stories also often included a racial element in which the welfare queen was described as part of a racial minority, thus fueling negative stereotypes about the poor and members of some racial and ethnic groups.

Woman posing
Woman posing

While several public policy analysts and academics have attempted to challenge the welfare queen myth, the stereotype remains. As a result, welfare laws in the United States have changed significantly since the 1990s in an attempt to decrease dependence on public benefits along with creating safeguards that fight welfare fraud. For example, welfare laws in the United States now restrict the period of time a individual or family can receive benefits. Some benefits, such as food stamps, are now available through electronic benefit cards, similar to debt cards, which makes it more difficult for somebody who receives food assistance to sell or transfer her benefits to another person.

Another stereotype that corresponds to the welfare queen stereotype is that of the so-called poverty pimp, someone who claims to be involved in charitable work but mainly supports himself through grants and other funds intended for the poor while not being able to demonstrate doing any actual good in impoverished communities. While the so-called poverty pimp may not directly be receiving welfare benefits, he may be employed as a result of being employed through the use of public funds as well as private grants. Individuals who advocate welfare reform frequently attack both the individuals receiving welfare benefits as well as those who are in the business of providing social services and argue that both classes of people are a drain on the system.

Discussion Comments


@Scrbblechick: Yeah, you don't want to be ugly, but I've seen them too. The article kind of implies the stereotype is racial, but anybody can game the system, regardless of race. My cousin works in the food stamp office as an eligibility officer and some of the stories she tells are infuriating. But there are some people who are going to commit fraud, regardless. It's sad.


There are many stereotypes that have faded into obscurity because they were so absurd or completely wrong. There is, unfortunately, a reason the welfare queen stereotype persists: they do exist.

A woman came to my desk with hair and nails I can't afford and a cell phone that, at the time cost about $400. She was on the phone with her mother about getting the paperwork in so her other children would qualify for the free meal program at school. Her nails alone would have paid for a month of meals for at least one child. (By the way: I fully support the free meals program for children. No child should go hungry.) It is discouraging, no matter how one feels about stereotypes.

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