The image that destroys the black 'welfare queen' myth

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, it might be worth a thousand food stamps.

In the town of Brushton, New York, 30 people were arrested for food stamp fraud. Can you guess how many people were black? None, as the picture below shows. All of those arrested were white. Thankfully, the myth of black folks as welfare cheats who game the system — a carefully crafted GOP invention to appeal to racists — has been exposed for what it is.

And with the 2016 presidential campaign upon us, here is an issue Republicans will be unable to exploit, or shouldn’t be able to exploit for political gain. Not that they won’t try.

From the late 1960s, white segregationist Democrats — resentful of black power and the gains African-Americans made during the civil rights movement — fled to the Republican Party. The Republicans were able to appeal to white skin solidarity, with poor and working class whites voting against their economic interests. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson.  “Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

Under the Southern Strategy, the GOP was able to win over racists without actually sounding racist. Republican strategist Lee Atwater perfected race card politics by channeling white racial resentment of black people into opposition to welfare and government programs.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N***er, n***er, n***er.” By 1968 you can’t say “n***er” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract,” Atwater said.  “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N***er, n***er.’”

In his presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan promoted the idea of the “welfare queen” — the stereotypical inner city black woman who has numerous children out of wedlock, and buys drugs and Cadillacs with welfare money. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year,” Reagan said in a 1976 campaign ad. This black face of welfare was offered as unsubstantiated evidence of massive fraud in government programs and used as a justification for cutting programs to the poor under the guise of welfare reform.

Meanwhile, although food stamp fraud is rare, and certainly far less than Medicare and Medicaid abuse, the GOP war on food stamps continues. For example, some Congressional Republicans want to require Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to submit to drug tests or show a photo ID when they purchase food with their government-issued debit cards. Alan Wilson, the Republican attorney general of South Carolina, has created a special unit to prosecute people who abuse food stamps — including the alleged practice of using benefits cards like ATM cards and receiving cash payouts from merchants rather than food.

And the racialization of welfare was on full display recently when state Rep. Gene Alday, a Republican lawmaker in Mississippi, told the Clarion-Ledger he opposed increased funding for black elementary school children in an effort to improve reading scores. Alday suggested such measures are futile, as he came from a town where “all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ‘welfare crazy checks.’ They don’t work.”

Republicans have called President Obama the “food stamp president” because enrollment in the program has increased 70% since he took office. Despite the past Republican successes in labeling food stamps as a black program, whites make up the largest share of food stamp recipients at 40%, followed by blacks at 26% and Latinos at 10%. Last year, Owsley, Kentucky was identified as the food stamp capital of the country, a 99% white and 95% Republican community. Moreover, the shaming and criminalization of Americans on food stamps obscures the fact that there is a hunger crisis in America, the land of plenty, and millions really need food stamps to survive.

The USDA defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In 2013, 49.1 million people — 1 in 6 Americans — were food insecure, often forced to skip meals, eat less or otherwise go hungry due to poverty. 19.5% of households with children were food insecure, as were 26.1% of black households and 23.7% of Hispanic households. Meanwhile, 45 million, or 14.5% lived below the poverty line.

And last year, the Census Bureau found that 46.5 million people relied on food stamps, including 16 million children, or 1 in 5, the highest since the 2008 economic downturn. Moreover, a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that stricter eligibility rules in states across the country could remove 1 million people from food stamps, resulting in “serious hardship for many.”

Conservatives will have you believe these are lazy black people, welfare cheats and drug abusers who are dependent on out-of-control, wasteful government programs and buy cigarettes and alcohol with their SNAP benefits card. But when the GOP is no longer able to rely on race-baiting and racial stereotypes to attack food stamps and other antipoverty programs, what do they have left? We are left wondering what Republicans would do to address the problem of massive poverty and hunger in America. The myth must end now. 

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove