Columns » Ernest Dumas

The 'Welfare Queen' lives on in food-stamp myth

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To appreciate the Republican triumph over America's poor last week, when the party's majority in the House of Representatives stripped food aid from the nation's farm bill, you must go back to Ronald Reagan's speeches about the Welfare Queen in his 1976 campaign for president against Gerald Ford.

If you're not old enough to remember, you've read about Reagan's hilarious — well, hilariously told — accounts of the woman who was arrested for welfare fraud on Chicago's black South Side. She drove a Cadillac, dined sumptuously on food stamps and raked in $150,000 a year tax-free by accumulating 80 separate identities and using them each month to collect scads of food stamps and Social Security, dependent-children and VA checks. Medicaid paid her doctor bills.

No one ever found the woman — not, that is, until Truthout.org claimed last year to have located her, not in the Chicago ghetto where Reagan had placed her, but in Bentonville, Ark. The Welfare Queen was Wal-Mart and the Walton heirs. Wal-Mart had pocketed $16 billion in profits the previous year and the Walton heirs enjoyed a fortune of $100 billion because Wal-Mart's "everyday low wages" and benefits made its workforce the nation's largest recipient of food stamps and other forms of federal aid.

It was a spoof. Needless to say, Reagan wasn't talking about Sam Walton or his spawn. Reagan's story, as best as anyone could guess, was based on a Chicago woman named Linda Taylor, who was prosecuted for using four (not 80) aliases to cheat the government out of $8,000 (not $150,000).

Fictional as they were, Reagan's welfare stories and his impromptu speech at the GOP convention galvanized a new base for the party in the South and made him the presumptive nominee for president in 1980. It made the Cadillac-driving black mother with a passel of kids the symbolic totem for food stamps and welfare, especially in the South, and it helped cement the GOP as the go-to party across the Southern seaboard from Virginia to Texas.

Not to be sexist, Reagan at other times that summer referred not to the Welfare Queen but to "strapping young bucks" — a derogatory Southern euphemism for black men — who used food stamps to buy T-bone steaks.

Reagan never identified the South Side Welfare Queen or the "bucks" as African-Americans, just as he did not mention blacks or segregation when he symbolically kicked off his 1980 campaign for president with a states-rights speech at tiny Philadelphia, Miss., made famous 12 years earlier by the murder of three civil rights workers who were trying to register blacks to vote.

No Republican congressman — and certainly none of the four from Arkansas who voted to leave nutrition for the poor out of the farm bill — will say that race had anything to do with it and, in fact, will take umbrage at the suggestion. They're against white moochers, too.

But all us old crackers know the roots of the Southern notion of food stamps as chiefly the government resource for poor black families that are too lazy to work.

That wasn't always the image of federal nutrition efforts. They began in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which, mainly to help white farmers whose produce prices had collapsed, bought farm commodities and distributed them among state and local relief agencies. In the South, the commodities went principally, though not altogether, to white families. The commodities program was converted to food stamps in 1939, then ended in the boom that followed World War II, and was reinstituted temporarily by President John F. Kennedy in the recession of 1960-61 and permanently by the Food Stamp Act of 1964.

Some 47 million Americans now get food stamps at some time during a year, a sizable increase since the great recession began in December 2007. It is true, as Obama critics claim, that the administration has encouraged people to get food stamps, if their incomes qualify them, to stimulate spending and economic growth. Obama's Recovery Act of 2009 raised benefits for every household that gets food stamps, but that program will end Nov. 1, reducing a family's food aid by $250.

It should be noted that most congressional Republicans, and three of Arkansas's four, wanted to continue hunger relief in the farm bill at a much reduced sum and with incentives for states to cut off relief to people who don't have a job. They supported the Paul Ryan budget blueprint that would have cut deficits over the next couple of decades by shrinking hunger relief, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but they didn't want to take the step of eliminating food stamps from the farm bill altogether.

The party's extremists, including the Fourth District's Tom Cotton, held out until food stamps were stripped from the bill, leaving the only beneficiaries of the government's largesse as the big agribusinesses, planters and insurance companies that supply government-subsidized crop insurance. Farm groups want food stamps restored to the farm bill because nutrition aid helps their own bottom line and because, without the political cover of hunger relief, they could lose their subsidies, too.

But let's localize the composition of hunger relief. About 500,000 Arkansans — 17 percent of us — get food stamps. Most are white, three-fourths are poor children, a third are in families with an elderly or disabled person, and 41 percent are in families of people who have jobs that just pay too little for food security. Nearly all have incomes well below the federal poverty line.

In Cotton's lily-white (one percent black) Yell County, where he claims to farm, one in every four people gets food stamps, $9 a day on average. In Congressman Rick Crawford's Fulton County (only two-tenths of one percent black), it is one in three.

Whom do they vote for? Why do you ask? Cotton and Crawford.

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