Taking a swipe at Cliven Bundy by calling him a “welfare queen” made the leap from social media snarking to cable news on Thursday, when CNN anchor Bill Weir brought it up in an interview with Bundy. “You are writing off a whole class of people, African-Americans, as sort of dangerously dependent because they get government assistance,” Weir stated. “At the same time, you’re grazing your cows on public land for free. So, how are you not sort of a welfare queen in a cowboy hat?”
Weir’s analogy is deeply unfair to people on welfare in so many ways, starting with the myth that people on welfare are defrauding the government in the same way that Bundy is doing. While there are people who lie on food-stamp applications and there was that one lady who ran a major welfare fraud scheme four decades ago, the overwhelming majority of people who apply for government assistance are honest people who are just trying to survive. The rate of food-stamp fraud—which includes people lying on applications and selling food stamps for cash—is low, about a penny on every dollar spent on the program. Plus, people who do commit food-stamp fraud generally go to jail for it. They don’t hole up in their homes with an illegal army of gun nuts while the right-wing media champions them for their anti-government activities.
Also, let’s be clear that the difference in scale here is massive. Bundy owes the federal government more than $1 million in grazing fees, fines, and other penalties. If he was cheating the government by lying on a food-stamp application, it would take him about 8,100 months to bilk the government for as much, at the Nevada allowance of $123.57 a month.
But really, the sexist and racially tinged stereotype of the “welfare queen” has expanded in the decades since Ronald Reagan first uttered the phrase in the ‘70s. Back then, he was using the phrase to imply that welfare fraud is more common than it is. Now, it tends to be used more to imply that there’s a class of people, mostly women, who subsist on welfare throughout their lives to avoid working. But this simply isn’t true. Food stamps are largely a program for working people who are temporarily unemployed. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.”
Even for people who need more help and have to turn to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the myth that they are lazy and dependent simply isn’t the reality. Or if they are, it’s because they are children and, as a civilized nation, we have banned child labor. Nearly half of families that receive TANF have no adult recipients, according to data collected by the Office of Family Assistance. Of the adults, three out of five are required to have paid employment in order to receive their benefits. Most of the rest are exempt for a very good reason, either because of disability or because they are single parents with babies under 12 months old.
Weir no doubt meant well, but by invoking the image of the “welfare queen,” he inadvertently reinforced the myth that people who turn to welfare are criminal, lazy, and dependent. You know, the exact myth that Bundy was leaning on to justify his insinuation that black people were better off under slavery. Government benefits are set up by the citizenry as a safety net we can all depend on if we fall down on our luck. Cliven Bundy, on the other hand, comes up with half-baked rationalizations for his desire to profit off stealing from the taxpayers. As fun as it may be to play gotcha with Bundy, surely there’s a way to do it without signing off on his offensive and frankly untrue remarks about people who receive legal government benefits.