Vol. XXXIV No. 2

Deadbeat Dads & Welfare Queens: How Metaphor Shapes Poverty Law

Abstract: Since the 1960s, racialized metaphors describing dysfunctional parents have been deployed by conservative policymakers to shape the way that the public views anti-poverty programs. The merging of race and welfare has eroded support for a robust social safety net, despite growing poverty and economic inequality throughout the land. This Article begins by describing the influence that metaphors have on the way people unconsciously perceive reality. It proceeds by examining historical racial tropes for Black families and how they were repurposed to create the Welfare Queen and Deadbeat Dad, the metaphorical villains of welfare programs. It also tracks the demise of welfare entitlements and the simultaneous ascendency of punitive child support enforcement intended to penalize both “absent” parents and families with non-normative structures. Ultimately, this Article argues that the focus on demonizing Black parents in the welfare system has created an obstacle to providing necessary resources to alleviate the suffering of a growing number of poor children of all races, the intended beneficiaries of public assistance.

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