“‘Welfare queen’ jailed in Tucson,” proclaimed the Chicago Tribune on October 12, 1974. A few days prior, Linda Taylor had been arrested after fleeing across state lines in one of the nation’s most public incidents of welfare fraud, initial charges alleging the use of over 80 aliases to fraudulently obtain over $100,000—about $175,170 today. The public seized her image in an instant. This woman, draped in furs, cruising up to receive her welfare checks in a Cadillac, was rapidly fictionalized into a bogeyman for the fearful fiscal conservatism of white America. This idea was quickly adopted by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 presidential campaign. She was the perfect piece of propaganda: with a story just real enough to twist into a universal truism, politicians and pundits could conflate her with welfare recipients as a whole.
Reagan referred to Taylor frequently, though never by name. Rather, he spoke of a “Chicago woman,” living like a duchess off the taxpayer’s dollar, just as he conjured images of T-bone steaks bought with food stamps and housing projects with eleven-foot ceilings and swimming pools. The message was clear: the audience was meant to gawk at the undue excesses of the poor and walk away with the conclusion that the freeloading lower class was, en masse, reaping the undeserved benefits of a dangerously permissive welfare state. Reagan, in his frequent dog-whistling appeals to white southerners, helped incite racist fervor toward the welfare system he regarded as a cancer—with single black mothers making up its most malignant cells.
The mythology of the welfare queen has long outlived Linda Taylor’s cultural relevance as an individual. Reaganomics—and its overseas sibling in neoliberalism Thatcherism—appealed regularly to this moral panic regarding the idea of the “undeserving poor.” Reagan and Margaret Thatcher alike argued for austerity-driven policy not only as an absolutely necessary economic solution, but also as a rectitude to the perceived disruption of the natural order posed by the inappropriate luxuries of the poor. “[In a Neoliberal framework] the organization of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers,” political columnist George Monbiot explains for The Guardian. “Inequality is recast as virtuous…Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.”
Neoliberalism—which is fundamental to, if debasing of modern conservatism—holds true that inequality is a natural and correct product of inherent disparities between individuals. The belief that the market intuitively rewards those who are, by nebulous definition, “better” (i.e. more industrious, more hardworking, more self-made) is almost a secular mutation of Prosperity Gospel, replacing the Hand of God with the invisible hand of the free market. The natural extension of this thought is that the poverty of individuals is not a systemic issue: it’s an individual failing.
This attitude, though often unspoken, is a near constant undertone to the American outlook toward the poor. So much of the political discourse in the United States boils down to the assumption that the recipients of government relief are, by nature, undeserving. The poor are dehumanized by pernicious stereotypes that are eagerly eaten up by those who cling to their unfailing faith in the righteousness of the free market. Rugged American individualism requires that the people be seen as only that: atomized individuals whose economic fate is in their own hands. By extension, it creates a culture of apologism toward poverty. In the simplest terms, if capitalism is fair, the outcomes that occur within capitalism are fair. If a person’s outcome within a fair capitalist system is poor, they have failed. If we are to acknowledge that a person’s outcomes within the system are not always in their own hands, then we must acknowledge that our outcomes are not always in our own. This is what makes the moralization of poverty so enduring. It’s not just a convenient justification to cut back welfare spending; it’s a comfort.
The reality is that the people who most staunchly oppose government aid tend to be the ones who would benefit most from it. Southern states, in which fear of government handouts is oftentimes strongest, have some of the highest rates of poverty in the nation. Many of the firmest believers in the idea that poverty is an individual moral failing are the same people that dogma vilifies. Why is it that so many people are able to not only vote, but ostensibly think against their own interests?
In a way, the moralization of poverty is an emotional safety net we place between ourselves and those whose conditions we don’t want to see ourselves in. When we rationalize to ourselves, even subconsciously, that the homeless man who lives in the encampment down the street is there by virtue of some moral failing, we draw a line between ourselves and him. You’re not like him. You can’t be. You work, pay your taxes and tried hard in school; well, maybe not that hard, but you tried, and he must not have tried hard enough, because why else would he be there? Because if he did all that and he’s still there, could the same become true of you?
The uncomfortable truth is that if you’re anything like the majority of Americans, you probably have more in common with the average homeless person than any of the people living the opulent lives we prefer to turn our eyes to. John Steinbeck famously said that the reason socialism never took root in America is “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s in part this tendency to identify with the ever-distant wealthy, particularly symptomatic to individualistic American capitalism, that makes people so quick to shun the poor as a class of untouchables. You could be in their position shockingly easily, but it’s far more comfortable to view oneself as the first half of a success story, one of those “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who just hasn’t hit their lucky break yet, than to identify oneself as a member of a greater subjugated working class, to recognize the bleakness of modern possibilities for upward mobility, of the ever-widening wealth gap, of the floundering American poor.
If we want to make any progress in addressing poverty, it’s essential that we acknowledge homeless and/or poverty-stricken people as members of our own communities—not interlopers, intruders, or trash to be picked up. We cannot simultaneously understand poverty as the function of a deeply unequal system and draw a moral line between ourselves and those less fortunate than us. To unlearn the hierarchical narratives ingrained into us through a lifetime under capitalism is a long and difficult journey, but it is one that can begin with the simple act of empathy.