Old Narrative Gets New Life in GOP Policy Proposals

March 15, 2012

I decided to write about Professor Matthew Fraidin’s column on child welfare mainly because it shows how the stereotypes we absorb and construct shape programs and services for low-income people.

Both he and David Henderson, the blogger/consultant I cited, focus on a narrative that predisposes us to think of poor people as incompetent — not as wise as we are about what’s good for them and their families.

But what really got me going is a more pernicious version of the poor people story that’s running just below the surface of some current policy developments.

In this narrative, low-income people aren’t incompetent. They’re lazy, prone to crime and willfully irresponsible.

Newt Gingrich, for example, has floated the notion that poor kids should be hired to clean their schools because their communities offer no exposure to “habits of working” — no “habit” of doing anything in exchange for cash “unless it’s illegal.”

If this were all, we could write it off as Newt spouting whatever comes into his mythy mind.

But Professor James Q. Wilson implied something rather similar when he wrote, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, that “making the poor more economically mobile” will require, among other things, “finding and implementing ways to … induce them to join the legitimate workforce.”

Seems that lawful work just doesn’t appeal to them.

Meanwhile, four states have passed laws requiring applicants for public assistance to pass drug tests. Dozens more considered similar proposals last year.

And again we got a bill to mandate nationwide drug testing in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The sponsor, Senator David Vitter (R-LA), says it’s needed to ensure that “potentially billions of dollars of welfare funds” don’t “end up in the wrong places or being spent on illegal drugs.”

In other words, we’ve got lots of poor parents who aren’t trying to become self-sufficient, as TANF intends. Indeed, they’re spending their meager benefits on drugs instead of on their children’ needs.

The data don’t support this. But the narrative does.

As Jordan C. Budd writes, most of the drug testing bills reflect “the implicit assumption that the poor are inherently predisposed to culpable conduct.” Groundless searches are justified because everyone in the class is suspect.

A bill the House passed in January provides a further twist to the narrative. This one got folded into the original House extensions package and into the final package as well.

The measure is supposed to prevent TANF recipients from using their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards to withdraw cash from ATM machines in liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.

The clear implication is that TANF benefits are going for booze, gambling and oggling naked dancers. Here again, undeserving poor parents indulging sinful appetites — and wasting money that should be spent on their needy, neglected children.

No evidence, however, that they’re spending money in these dens of sin. Some may use the ATMs because they work in those places. Others because there’s a liquor store around the corner, while a bank is several miles away.

These policy initiatives are relatively new, but the narrative is an old one, predating the “Welfare Queen meme” that journalist Ed Kilgore says is making a comeback. The difference is that it’s no longer as overtly racist.

But we know who these undeserving, profligate poor people are, don’t we? Had we any doubt that the mythical welfare queen was black?

UPDATE: After I posted this, I found a just-published article by Barbara Ehrenreich that traces the evolution of the narrative I discuss here. Informative and insightful, as her work always is.