President Joe Biden has been compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and has even been called the “Anti-Reagan.”
But there’s another legendary political character that people should cite to explain why Biden’s governing approach during his first 100 days in office is such a radical break from the past.
That character is a Black woman of indeterminate age who has 12 Social Security cards, mooches on benefits from four fake dead husbands and collects welfare payments under 80 bogus names while getting food stamps.
She is, of course, the infamous Welfare Queen.
That’s how Ronald Reagan described her when he introduced the character during a presidential campaign rally nearly half a century ago. Reporters investigating Reagan’s 1976 Welfare Queen story concluded that it wasn’t quite true. Though never mentioning a name or race, Reagan had exaggerated the abuses of an actual Black woman in Chicago.
It didn’t matter, though, if the story was more fiction than fact. The Welfare Queen embodied the GOP’s belief that sending government aid to the poor would backfire because freeloaders – hint, Black people – will invariably splurge that money on steak and lobster.
The Welfare Queen became the political equivalent of a horror movie villain. Democratic leaders didn’t have a counter story that could stop it. It spread the myth that most Black and poor people were lazy cheaters looking for a handout instead of a hand up. The story was so influential that even Democratic presidents became leery of pushing Big Government solutions to help low-income people of color.
But Biden is now boldly going where no contemporary Democratic president has gone before, and he’s destroying one of the GOP’s most effective political attacks in the process.
The heart of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda is three massive plans that would use huge sums of government money to help working families, including people of color. The American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March, includes direct cash payments to struggling families. Two other plans would rebuild the country’s infrastructure and expand tax credits to help working families and make education more affordable.
What’s fascinating is how Republicans have responded. It’s not what they’ve said: that Biden is a “radical” and a “socialist” and his proposals are a “sloppy liberal wish list.”
It’s what they haven’t said that’s revealing. They haven’t successfully deployed any Welfare-Queen-like stories about people of color mooching off pandemic aid to turn a critical mass of White voters against Biden’s plans. If there have been such attacks, they haven’t gained traction.
“[The Republicans] don’t have a coherent pushback,” James Carville told the Daily Beast in a recent interview, describing three right-wing lines of attack against the President. “It’s all CBS: cancel culture, the border and senility.”
Why it’s hard to brand ‘Uncle Joe’ a radical
Few people would have predicted Biden to be the leader who deposed the myth of the Welfare Queen. He once helped her retain her place on the throne.
Biden once described the nation’s ill-fated attempts to integrate public schools in the 1970s as “forced busing.” He cited his ability to get “things done” with White supremacist senators despite fundamental political disagreements.
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He even helped spread the Welfare Queen myth.
In 1988, when he was a US Senator, Biden wrote a column for a Delaware newspaper in which he argued that the welfare system had collapsed.
“We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous,” he wrote. “Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down…”
More recently, Biden’s reputation as a centrist with a problematic history with Black voters dogged him during the 2020 Democratic primaries. Then-rival Kamala Harris memorably confronted Biden during one debate over his opposition to busing. A majority of registered voters still think he is more moderate than Obama, though his policies so far have been more progressive.
“As a White, elderly man, Biden is a difficult target for Trump-loving conservatives who like to portray racially diverse Democrats as a threat to what they see as Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson recently wrote.
What was once seen as Biden’s vulnerability as a Democratic candidate – his mixed record on race – has become a presidential asset. It’s easier for him to propose plans that help people of color without sparking a White backlash.
Consider the language he uses to describe his Build Back Better agenda. In the second paragraph of its introductory statement on the White House website, he talks of how “Black and Latino Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and women have never been welcomed as full participants in the economy.”
Biden also openly describes his American Jobs Plan, which would invest in rebuilding roads and airports, as a plan to raise the wages of home health aides and caregivers – professions where the majority of workers are women of color.
This is remarkable. A Democratic president is talking boldly and unapologetically about using government aid to not just help millions of working people but also people of color.
It’s a big departure from past years, when Republican leaders kept Democrats on the defensive by deploying varying versions of the same Welfare Queen story that blended racism with contempt for the poor.
One Republican leader called Barack Obama a “food-stamp president.” Another warned of a “tailspin of culture” in inner-city neighborhoods and complained that able-bodied people were turning the safety net “into a hammock.”
Even past Democratic presidents may have been influenced by this racist rhetoric. President Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we have come to know it” when he led the passage of a welfare reform law in 1996. And Obama proposed cutting Social Security to ensure its long-term viability.
“Uncle Joe,” though, seems immune so far to such attacks.
The pandemic gave Biden another powerful political story
Frederick W. Mayer, a political scientist, once said that politics often revolves around a “contest of stories.”
“Tell a story! Facts are great, analysis is important, but if the goal is political mobilization, a shared story is essential,” Mayer wrote. “And remember, you cannot beat a story without another story.”
Democrats couldn’t beat the Welfare Queen story because that story was loaded with racist stereotypes about Black people that have been ingrained in American culture for centuries.
When Jared Kushner, former President Trump’s White House, said Trump “can’t want them [Blacks] to be successful more than they want to be successful,” employing a well-worn stereotype that Blacks are lazy. White slaveholders derided Blacks as shiftless. Early Hollywood once offered White audiences popular Black characters such as “Sleep n’ Eat” and “Stepin Fetchit,” dubbed “the “laziest man in the world.”
Perhaps no one should have been surprised when a 2017 University of Chicago survey found that 55% of White Republicans agreed with the statement that Blacks “don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.” (In the same poll 26% of White Democrats said the same).
But the pandemic has offered Biden a counter to that stereotype: The Black and brown “essential workers” who risked their lives under grueling conditions during the pandemic to help others, says Eduardo Porter, author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise.”
Porter says in his book that the US has “the most meager social safety net in the club of advanced nations” because so many White Americans have been persuaded to oppose government programs that, while helping them, also help what they consider to be undeserving Black and brown people.
“The Welfare Queen story was immensely powerful, but you try to find stories that push back against these tropes,” Porter told CNN. “For instance, most of the frontline workers in all of our cities have been mostly Black and brown. They’ve been exposing themselves (to the virus) while delivering food and Grubhub to you while you’re working at home. That’s a story that has a lot of potential to change minds.”
Biden has consistently lifted up these workers, who have helped keep the American economy going at great risk to their own safetys.
“It’s not enough to praise you,” he said to a group of essential workers just days after winning the presidency last year. “We have to protect you. We have to pay you.”
Yes, the poor can be trusted with money
The Welfare Queen also is no longer a potent symbol because Biden has taken advantage of a shift in thinking about how to help the poor.
There is a growing consensus in academic circles that one of the best ways to help the poor is to give them money with no strings attached. Much of traditional government aid to the poor is built on the assumption that poor people are morally irresponsible. Recipients of aid often must submit to drug tests, interviews and proof of employment – restrictions that imply poor people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.
The city of Stockton, California, recently launched a program that shattered those assumptions. The city sent $500 monthly payments to 125 randomly selected people who were living in neighborhoods with average incomes lower than the city median of $46,000 a year and told them they could spend the money as they saw fit – no strings attached.
Researchers said that the people who received the free money were able to land full-time jobs at more than twice the rate of people in another group that did not receive cash. The extra money also gave recipients more stability to learn new job skills, start businesses and improve their mental outlook. Other similar experiments around the globe have reached similar conclusions.
Annie Lowrey, a writer at The Atlantic magazine, summed up the key finding of the Stockton experiment when she said:
“The best way to get people out of poverty is just to get them out of poverty; the best way to offer families more resources is just to offer them more resources.”
Biden’s economic plans reflect this thinking. His American Rescue plan sent direct payments of $1,400 per person to many American households. (Former President Trump sent similar payments during the pandemic to many Americans.)
Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan, signed into law in March, offers some parents the option of receiving a $300 monthly payment from the IRS from July through December, as part of the enhanced child tax credit.
The sheer scale of Biden’s multitrillion-dollar effort to end the pandemic and make life better for millions of struggling Americans has inspired some commentators to say that Biden has closed the door on the Reagan era.
“This moment is like 1981, the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, except in reverse,” wrote David Brooks of the New York Times. “It’s not just that government is heading in a new direction, it’s the whole paradigm of the role of government in American life is shifting. Biden is not causing these tectonic plates to shift, but he is riding them.”
The Welfare Queen myth was a racist fable that reinforced some of the ugliest stereotypes about Black and poor people. Countless Americans suffered because they couldn’t get the help they needed.
Perhaps some of Biden’s plans will never become law in a closely divided Senate. Maybe the Welfare Queen story will mutate and come roaring back in another racist, viral narrative.
But commentators like Brooks should add another paradigm shift to Biden’s list of accomplishments. Biden has done what neither Clinton nor Obama could do:
He’s dethroned the Welfare Queen.