One of the more alarming political phenomena of the last few years has been the very loud return of the “Welfare Queen” meme, back with a vengeance from its apparent burial in the 1990s.

You’d think with work requirements and vastly reduced welfare caseloads and benefit levels, conservative anger about people on welfare would be a thing of the past. And in truth, until very recently, resentment of the less fortunate has taken slightly different forms, beginning with the very powerful conservative belief that shiftless poor and minority families caused the housing meltdown and the financial crisis, and continuing with the subtext that ObamaCare would take Medicare benefits away from virtuous elderly white folks to provide health coverage for people too lazy to take care of themselves.

But now something closer to the original “welfare queen” gospel, based on the idea that people on very basic public assistance are fleecing taxpayers while thumbing their noses at their values, is making a big comeback. It probably started with the rash of state legislative proposals for drug testing of “welfare” or even unemployment insurance beneficiaries. It gained fresh momentum when Newt Gingrich excited rank-and-file Republicans to a fever pitch by chewing out an African-American journalist about the poor work ethic of food stamp recipients.

And now, today, House Republicans are staging a vote to stop people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars at strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores.


The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-LA) claims to be responding to widespread reports of TANF money going to various dens of the devil. Best I can tell, the real issue involves distribution of TANF benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards that have not been properly encrypted to restrict their use; the “abuses” are mainly anecdotal, and can be cured without national legislation–and certainly without a showy vote in the House.

But no. The whole kerfuffle is highly remiscent of the habit the saintly Ronald Reagan used to indulge of regaling conservative audiences with an apocryphal anecdote about a food stamp recipient getting change in a grocery store line and buying a bottle of vodka.

As CAP Action Fund’s Melissa Boteach noted in her commentary on the Boustany measure, if the U.S. House has time to worry about richly symbolic instances of taxpayers subsidizing bad behavior, there are better targets:

If program integrity were the goal, then conservatives would also be calling for votes forbidding corporations that receive taxpayer subsidies and bailouts from having big conferences in Las Vegas, where there is no shortage of casinos, strip clubs, and liquor stores.

What’s really going on is that House Republicans are treating their base voters to the rhetorical equivalent of a lap dance at taxpayer expense.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.