Tom Mould


On his book Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America

Cover Interview of August 05, 2020

In a nutshell

In 1976, Ronald Reagan hit the campaign trail with an incredible story about a woman committing massive welfare fraud. The story caught fire and launched the most devastating symbol of government programs in the history of the U.S.: the welfare queen. But there are other stories about welfare in America that provide a far different and more complex picture: the stories told by cashiers, bus drivers and business owners, politicians and aid providers, and most importantly, aid recipients themselves.

Overthrowing the Queen looks at all these stories—the personal stories of struggle and hope as well as the devastating legends of fraud and abuse. Together, these stories reveal how the seemingly innocent act of storytelling can create not only powerful stereotypes that shape public policy, but also redemptive counter narratives that offer hope of a more accurate, fair, and empathetic view of poverty in America today.

By taking a close look at these stories and the people who tell them, Overthrowing the Queen proposes answers to some of the most vexing questions about welfare, legend, and narrative. Why has the “welfare queen” had such staying power? How have stories about welfare fraud shaped public policy and opinion? Why do aid recipients repeat legends of fraud? Why do stories about the hardworking poor fall on deaf ears? Does the dominant approach to the study of contemporary legend need revision? And most importantly of all: Who are the individuals who struggle day after day to make ends meet in a system demonized by so many?

Overthrowing the Queen tackles these questions while proposing new approaches to the study of oral narrative. Extending far beyond the study of welfare, poverty, and social justice, the book provides a model for narrative research relevant to folklorists, anthropologists, rhetoricians, linguists, political scientists, and the growing number of scholars in the social sciences who recognize the power of narrative in shaping our world.

This book is structured to move the reader between two axes: (1) welfare and narrative, (2) aid recipient and non-aid recipient. Welfare grabs the spotlight for the first half of the book with narrative rising to the fore in the second half. Similarly, aid recipients claim many of the early chapters, while later chapters consider stories told by non-aid recipients. Throughout the book, however, the context for telling these stories remains paramount, so that none of these categories or groups are ever fully isolated from the other.

Despite this structure, readers should have no problem diving into any of these chapters to begin their exploration. That said, because one of the goals of the book is to challenge the stereotypes of aid recipients in this country, readers will benefit from reading the first half of “Welfare System and Narrative Scholarship” (Chapter 2) for a view of the truths about welfare in the U.S. that upend many commonly held assumptions, and either Chapter 4, 5, or 6, all of which provide stories from aid recipients.