April 21, 2012

Women and Indians as "welfare queens"

What We Still Get Wrong About Women and Work

The question we should be asking is not whether domestic caregiving is more or less important than wage work—they’re both crucial, and crucially different.

By Michelle Chen
The distorted framing of the debate is captured in Mitt Romney’s contradictory comments about forcing mothers receiving public assistance into the labor force—in order to instill in them the “dignity of work.” This myopic binary between women of poverty and women of privilege reflects the evolution of the federal welfare state throughout the 20th century.

Poor women, who evidently lack dignity, must redeem themselves through work, while the apparently inborn dignity of their affluent counterparts allows them to embody feminine virtue by staying within the domestic sphere. And if they volunteer to climb the career ladder, they’re vaunted as supermoms.

Part of this mentality stems from a reactionary, often racialized construction of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. The argument is also steeped in the corrosive cultural assumption that poor women’s social value derives from their labor or reproductive capacity, not their humanity, intellect or relationships.

The counterpoint to Ann Romney’s domestic sainthood is the right’s fictional “welfare queen,” the unwed mother who supposedly leeches off the state with abandon and embodies corrupt, uncontrollable fertility.

And that’s where the “dignity of work” comes in, to discipline the unruly woman and keep her in her place, safely below the poverty line. Neoliberals like Newt Gingrich have sought to broaden the attack on poor women by advocating for the use of the child welfare as a punitive tool, sweeping kids into state custody to “rescue” them from disadvantaged mothers and their communities. So much for family values.
Comment:  Arguments about the "deserving" versus the "undeserving" poor also apply to blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. In the Native field, "bad" Indians are the ones who don't pay taxes, get checks from the government, and get rich via casinos without working. "Good" Indians are, well, the dead ones.

Seriously. Indians were brave and noble, we tell ourselves. But now they're corrupt and degraded. We worship the dead ones while scorning the live ones as fakes (not enough blood) or sellouts.

For more on Indians as welfare recipients, see Republicans Want to "Keep America America" and Attawapiskat Triggers "Welfare" Stereotypes.

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