Tom Mould

 

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

Cover Interview of August 05, 2020

A close-up

For a book that touts the power of storytelling, I would be remiss not to recommend that casual readers flip to pages of aid recipients telling stories from their own perspectives. Section 2 (Chapters 4, 5, and 6) are all focused on stories from aid recipients. Since each chapter begins with a story, the beginning of any of those chapters is a great place to dive right in.

For example, in Chapter 4, readers will meet Lilly Gibbs, a powerhouse of a woman who was married, owned a home, and had her own business when her husband’s emotional and physical abuse plunged her into addiction, joblessness, and homelessness. Soon after, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Her story is one of strength and struggle, despair and hope. The chapter continues with other “origin stories” of how people ended up needing help in the first place.

Chapter 5 opens in a financial literacy class at a local service agency helping people learn the basics of balancing budgets to make ends meet. “My son breaks his toy, and he expects me to buy him another one,” shares one woman in the class. “I’m like, ‘I ain’t got no money.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen some money.’ ‘Well, that money was here, but now it’s gone.’” The room erupts in laughter, with participants recognizing a similar experience of income that disappears all too quickly. The stories that follow depict the challenges people face in day to day living with the help of public assistance.

Throughout these chapters, there are hundreds of stories from other aid recipients, all unique, but with all-too-familiar challenges. Major illness or injury, domestic abuse, loss of job, or one bad choice can be the difference between self-sufficiency and the need for government assistance. Lack of quality education, affordable childcare, professional growth opportunities and access to jobs that pay a living wage exacerbate these challenges. Systemic inequalities including formal and informal policies that disadvantage the poor and people of color often underlie these more proximate causes.

There are two other places I would direct the reader flipping through this book in a bookstore. The first is page 65 where they can find a graphic that compares the myth of the American Dream with the legend of the “Welfare Queen.” The image makes it clear that the welfare queen story has been constructed as the antithesis of the American Dream, ensuring that the welfare system and its recipients will be remembered, and reviled, as subverting the foundational values upon which this country was founded. The second is page 294, which offers readers strategies for how to tell more accurate stories about welfare to counter the unfair stereotypes that have gripped public consciousness in this country.