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Racial Wealth Divide

Dethroning Reagan’s ‘Welfare Queen’

Research & Commentary
December 07, 2014

by Sheila Kennedy

The reality of poor Americans’ lives is far more complex than cultural stereotypes suggest.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

poor people are lazy despite evidence to the contrary

Despite evidence to the contrary, the myth of the lazy poor persists.

From Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent,” attitudes about the poor being lazy or unwilling to work have long been an indelible part of American culture.

Many of these beliefs, it turns out, are rooted in America’s religious past.

When I was doing research for my book God and Country, I traced several ostensibly secular policy preferences back to their religious roots. In the case of poverty policies, I concluded that many contemporary attitudes toward the poor remain rooted in a simplified version of Calvinism—the belief that worldly success is a sign of God’s approval and, conversely, that poverty is evidence of moral defect.

Today, these attitudes are rarely doctrinal. Rather, they are largely unconscious, having been absorbed into the popular culture.

The problem is that such easy dismissal of struggling Americans is at odds with reality.

Recently, the United Ways in Indiana took a hard look at “Alice.” Alice is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed—people in households that have income above the federal poverty level, but below the basic cost of living. The report was generated using state and county level data.

What did that data show? Here are some of the highlights: [pullquote] Religious-based attitudes about the poor have been absorbed into the popular culture. [/pullquote]

• More than one in three Hoosier households cannot afford the basics of housing, food, health care and transportation, despite working hard.
• In Indiana, 37 percent of households live below the Alice threshold, with some 14 percent below the poverty level and another 23 percent above poverty but below the cost of living.
• These families and individuals have jobs, but many do not qualify for social services or support.
• The jobs they are doing are critically important to our communities. They are child care workers, laborers, movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants—yet they are unsure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.

As the Alice report notes, for families living on the edge, families struggling just to put dinner on the table, saving money is a pipe dream. There is nothing left to save. So these families are vulnerable to any unexpected expense—a car repair, an uninsured illness, even an unexpectedly high utility bill can be enough to plunge them into debt or worse. [pullquote] Caricatures about the poor are built on the assumption that poor Americans don’t want to work. [/pullquote]

The value of this report is that it rebuts the thoughtless but ingrained caricature that has been so skillfully deployed by Reagan, Romney, and countless others. Their caricatures are built on the assumption that poor Americans “play the system,” refuse to work, and spend their days taking advantage of hard-working taxpayers.

Such people undoubtedly exist. So do the so-called “captains of industry” who play the system by lobbying for and obtaining unnecessary subsidies and favorable tax treatment. But most businesspeople are hardworking and honest, and most Americans who fall below the Alice threshold are equally hardworking and honest.

As the Executive Director of the Jennings County Economic Development Commission wrote in the introduction to the report:

Alice is the family in Elkhart whose car breaks down, which takes the grocery money, which sends the family to the food pantry. Alice is the family in Terre Haute whose entire economic life comes undone when the breadwinner breaks a leg and loses three weeks wages. Alice is the family in Marion whose 11-year-old watches the 5-year-old because they can’t afford afterschool programs despite both parents working full-time. [pullquote] The reality of poor Americans’ lives is far more complex than the cultural stereotypes. [/pullquote]

The bottomline is that the reality of poor Americans’ lives is much more complex than the cultural stereotypes suggest. As this report proves, Alice is anything but lazy.

It’s time Americans relegate their religious-based, outdated attitudes about the poor to the dustbin of history where they belong.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals. She blogs at

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