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.
The idea for this book started at a cocktail party. It was April 2011, just over a year after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As ACA continued to be tweaked, conversations about healthcare remained common and heated. I was prepared for arguments against universal healthcare, but I was not prepared to hear a story I thought had died out in the 1980s about “welfare queens” buying steaks for their dogs while wearing fur coats and driving Cadillacs. And yet here I was, almost forty years later, hearing the same story, this time used to deny the poor affordable healthcare.
Up until this point, my research had focused primarily on sacred narratives: the creation stories and prophecies of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the stories of personal revelation among Latter-day Saints. Hearing this story, I realized that stories of the American Dream and The Welfare Queen operated similarly: as foundational stories to explain the world.
Overthrowing the Queen is situated within the contested area of perception and reality that narrative so often negotiates. It is not difficult to show that the stories of outrageous fraud are representative of neither the majority, nor even a significant minority of aid recipients. Why then do we continue to tell them? Answers lie not only in our political system and our inability to see structural inequity, but in the nature of stories and storytelling.
Narrative is not value-neutral. Stories demand complications, climaxes, and resolution. They require protagonists and antagonists. The asks narrators to position themselves in relation to the actions and actors in their stories. And they ask us to do this in culturally specific ways, shaping our experiences to fit the narrative traditions we have grown up with. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that operates powerfully but often invisibly.
I approach these stories primarily as a folklorist, attending to theories about narrative construction and transmission that help answer questions about why some stories stick with us and get retold again and again while others fall on deaf ears. In asking these questions, however, I draw heavily on research in anthropology, communications, rhetoric, psychology, and sociology.
While the book is very much about the stories people tell about welfare, it also serves as a case study to consider larger questions about the nature of narrative, storytelling, and legend, particularly within everyday discourse. For examples, for decades scholars have approached legend in terms of truth. It is doubt, however, that defines the legend. A doubt-centered approach to legend goes a long way to explaining how stories can open up discourse for debate. Similarly, a performance-centered approach to narrative helps us move beyond simple textual analysis to consider the role that public perception and stigma have on the stories we choose to tell and how we tell them. Further, structural analysis reveals a host of narrative types that have been under-theorized, particularly generalized experience narratives that allow people to recount memorable events as habitual, widespread experiences.
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.
The primary goal of this book is to challenge the stereotypical stories about welfare and its recipients and offer more accurate, fair, and nuanced stories from aid recipients themselves. More than that, however, the book offers strategies to readers for challenging these stereotypes in their own stories and their own lives.
Economists and policy wonks can develop strategies, policies, and plans, but without the will of politicians and the public, the best laid plans will suffer the fate of the tree that falls in the woods with no one to hear it. If a politician believes the poor are lazy cheats, she will likely not vote to fund job training or childcare vouchers. One way to change these perceptions is through stories.
We can start by de-stigmatizing poverty and welfare and by tackling the stories about welfare with an understanding of just how powerful stories can be. Not only are stories crucial to how we perceive and construct our world—they are enduring. As Chip and Dan Heath argue in their New York Times bestselling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, stories are sticky; with their concrete details and remarkable plots, stories are eminently memorable. Unlike statistics and arguments, stories are remembered more clearly and more often than information conveyed in more abstract ways.
Stories are also entertaining. We tell stories for amusement and sociability, not just as proof for some point we want to make. In this way, stories can operate like epidemics: spreading virally from one person to another. A single story of welfare fraud told a hundred times can start to feel like a hundred cases of welfare fraud. Further, stories can encode deep-seated beliefs that we may be unwilling to share so explicitly and boldly. Our stories betray our fears and desires in ways our direct speech does not.
But just as stories can perpetuate stereotypes, they can also dismantle them. Social science research provides the blueprint for advocacy through storytelling. Empathy, familiarity, and internal and external coherence are particularly powerful rhetorical elements of persuasive narratives. Reframing narratives already in the oral tradition is particularly effective in identifying stories told by aid recipients that are most likely to change people’s hearts and minds.
Overthrowing the Queen does not cherry-pick the stories told about welfare in the U.S. All the stories, true, false, and everywhere in between are included. But analysis of these stories offers readers the opportunity to learn and retell stories from people with firsthand experience relying on aid to survive. Further, the final chapter of the book suggests strategies for highlighting authentic narratives with the best chances of being heard.
In this way, the book operates as a corrective. With fraud rates in aid programs such as Food Stamps well below 2%, we would need to tell 50-75 stories of people working hard to make ends meet for every one story of fraud. In the interest of fairness, we have a long way to go.
Tom Mould is Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of numerous books and articles on oral narrative, legend, poverty, and social justice, including his most recent book Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America, featured in his Rorotoko interview. He has produced documentaries, exhibits, panels, and a website, in addition to appearing in television and radio programs and writing for the mainstream media to bring the study of folklore and oral traditions to the general public. He currently serves on the Executive Board of the American Folklore Society.