Welfare Queens and White Trash
25 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2016 Last revised: 26 Apr 2016
Date Written: February 29, 2016
The “welfare queen” is widely recognized as a racialized construct deployed by politicians to undermine support for public benefits and the wider social safety net. Less often recognized or discussed is the flip side of the welfare queen’s conflation of blackness with dependency and poverty: the conflation of whiteness with self-sufficiency, autonomy, and affluence. The welfare queen trope, along with media and scholarly depictions of socioeconomic disadvantage as a nonwhite phenomenon, deflects attention from white poverty. Yet data indicate that a majority of poor people in the United States self-identify as white.
This essay, written for the “Reframing the Welfare Queen” symposium, (re)surfaces the existence of white poverty and ponders its (in)visibility, meaning, and significance in relation to the welfare queen construct. Among other things, Pruitt suggests that the welfare queen stigmatype is not just bad for blacks, it is bad for poor whites. First, it obscures white poverty, rendering poor whites and their plight invisible. Second, to the extent we are aware of white poverty, the widespread conflation of whiteness with affluence suggests that poor whites have only themselves to blame, given the benefits widely associated with white-skin privilege.
Given the welfare queen’s potency as a racialized construct, we might assume that greater awareness of white poverty would enhance public support for safety net programs because middle and upper income whites would (so the story goes) want to ameliorate white poverty, even if racial animus discourages their support for poor blacks. But Pruitt questions the soundness of this line of reasoning, which discounts the existence and potency of intraracial discrimination in assuming that society feels greater empathy with or concern for the fate of poor whites than for poor nonwhites. In fact, we have several reasons — including empirical studies — to believe that such a well of empathy is missing. A further reason for skepticism is found in a second racialized construct explored in this article: white trash.
Keywords: critical race theory, poverty, whiteness, welfare queen, white trash, intra-racial bias, racism, public benefits, safety net, white working class, socioeconomic class
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation