Ronald Reagan needed to prove a point. It was 1976, he was campaigning for president, and he had to convince the American people that welfare was bad for them. All wars need enemies, even the war on welfare, and eventually Reagan found one: Linda Taylor, an Illinois fraudster. Journalist Josh Levin recalled Reagan’s resulting speech for Slate: “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.” His foe now had a name, a face, a gender. Taylor was a “welfare queen,” as the Chicago Tribune had previously dubbed her, and thus a legend was born. Her legend persisted, mutated, became something much larger than one individual’s tale. The figure of the welfare queen affirmed certain beliefs about the poor: that they were defective in some way, an intransigent moocher class. Those beliefs never faded from the right or from the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party. They are audible now, as the right battles enhanced unemployment insurance — and once again, Democrats are listening.
To hear the right talk, the enhanced unemployment benefit that kept thousands out of poverty also keeps them out of work because they’d rather abuse the system. There’s no real evidence that this extra $300 per week on top of regular unemployment benefits is driving people out of the workforce en masse, as the many said after April’s lackluster jobs report. The dearth of new hiring can be explained by a variety of possible causes, including the nationwide lack of childcare to free people to seek work. Yet NPR’s Marketplace reports that Arkansas, Montana, and South Carolina have already pulled out of the unemployment program, returning recipients to pre-pandemic benefit levels that barely kept the rent paid. This should be a layup for Democrats, especially for the Biden administration. The pandemic is ongoing, the economic crisis is still around, and Republican governors are depriving people of extra money they need to survive. In such circumstances, the myth of the welfare queen ought to be hard to sustain. Even if people are relying on enhanced unemployment to hold out for better jobs, they aren’t the real problem. Democrats might blame employers and their low wages instead.
Biden, however, has conceded an important point to the right. “We’re going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who was offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits,” he said at a Monday press conference. “There are a few COVID-19 related exceptions … But, otherwise, that’s the law.” The Washington Post later reported that the White House would “direct” the Labor Department to “work with states on re-imposing work search requirements for Americans collecting unemployment benefits.” It’s not altogether clear what this will mean in practice, but it sounds very ’90s-Democrat, which is not a compliment. The welfare queen haunted Bill Clinton, too. The legend inspired disastrous welfare reform in the name of “personal responsibility,” the logic of which is specious even in times of economic prosperity; the idea that the poor must be goaded into work supposes an intrinsic laziness on their part that does not really exist. In the midst of an economic crisis, Biden’s rhetoric is even more disturbing. It’s reminiscent of Clinton or even Reagan, not FDR. Biden and his party just passed an enormous stimulus package that included a tax credit that could cut child poverty in half. Yet Biden, an avowed moderate, always had more in common with the party’s neoliberals than its progressives. With Monday’s remarks, maybe he’s just reminding us who he really has been all along.
But Biden the moderate is not the Biden anyone needs. If he hopes to appease the right, there’s no point. They won’t be overtaken by some new bipartisan impulse because a Democratic president said a few strong words about work. People need something larger and more imaginative from Biden. People on unemployment must already attest that they’re looking for work and disclose whether they were offered a job. There’s no reason to assume they’re lying, and the Biden administration could and indeed should say as much. The pandemic isn’t just an opportunity to expand the American welfare state; it’s a chance to do away with the myths used to shrink it in the first place. The power of the welfare queen should have ended with Reagan. It’s time for the Democratic Party to forget her for good.