In 1976, Ronald Reagan implanted in our minds the image of the “welfare queen”, a scammer who “used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare”. Reagan used the life of one person to launch a national narrative that tapped into—and fed—our history of suspicion and hostility toward people receiving public support in the United States.
The term “welfare queen” has since morphed into an image of people (largely of color) who are lazy and undeserving, a stereotype that today is further reinforced through the use of technology and data analytics. Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of the book “Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor”, illustrates a stark picture of how data, under the auspices of efficiency, is subversively used to oppress people impacted by poverty. In one example, she describes a political move made by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels to eliminate TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in Indiana by declaring it wasteful and fraudulent after data collected on the transactions of TANF families were found to be suspicious based on where the purchases were made*. Daniels wove a story about TANF families who were defrauding taxpayers by buying liquor, lottery tickets, and cigarettes with their cash benefits, a story that was worked to “heap stigma on social programs and reinforce the cultural narrative that those who access public assistance are criminal, lazy, spendthrift addicts.”
Data can tell many stories, yet few depict the resilience and resourcefulness of families who each day experience the stress of poverty. Over the next few years, our work at TPA will take us into communities experiencing deep poverty. What we hope to reveal is the true strength of families living in poverty, just like when we partnered with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to design savings tools for parents in TANF. To our surprise, we heard parents, generally, mothers who depend heavily on public support to care for their children, describe their truly astute money management and saving skills; skills they wanted their children to build early in life. Through programs like this, we work daily to define a new narrative that presents a real picture of hard-working people who deserve more respect than what we give to them today.
*(source: Eubanks, Virginia. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. 2015)