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Reimagining what never was : the welfare queen, PRWORA, and a new legacy of racism
Paige Marie Joki
December 13, 2013
Department or Program
In this thesis, I argue that welfare reform in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 created a new legacy of welfare racism concealed by facially neutral language. I look specifically at Section 115 of PRWORA, which created a lifetime ban from governmental food aid for individuals convicted of a drug-related felony. Through policies such as PRWORA, Black women become targets for surveillance and intrusive policies as they are portrayed as dangerous to society, immoral, and exploitative. The rhetoric surrounding PRWORA reimagines the Welfare Queen as a drug-using Black woman; which casts any woman who meets the description outlined in Section 115 as guilty of intentionally misusing welfare. I contend that PRWORA uses deservingness and coded language to exclude drug-using Black women from participating in full citizenship. As a result, Black women who use drugs become entangled in welfare system rhetoric and policy that renders them not only socially expendable, but socially poisonous. The racism of this act uses facially neutral language to frame the issues as being about the harm of drug use to make the revocation of welfare seem reasonable, necessary, and important for the overall health of society. I use Judith Butler’s concept of framing to illustrate how Welfare Queen rhetoric has been (re)popularized and given a façade of neutrality that allows the trope to exist in the face of contestation, while maintaining often invisible ties to explicit racism. I analyze the text of PRWORA, itself, as well as the accounts of drug-using Black women to examine the ways facially neutral language in the policy reconstitutes and disguises new iterations of the Welfare Queen, while disqualifying Black women from representing themselves in ways beyond the frame. Drug-using Black women need to be properly recognized outside of the demeaning and damaging frame to access full citizenship, as facially neutral racist rhetoric condemns these women to permanent guilt, as well as to silence.