Myth: There are Welfare Queens driving Welfare Cadillacs.

Fact: Reagan made up this story.


Reagan's story of a Welfare Queen driving a Welfare Cadillac was apocryphal. Even so, there is no evidence that welfare cheating is a significant problem; besides, individual welfare payments are too small for recipients to live well.


Conservative politicians have a talent for telling memorable anecdotes that capture the essence of their beliefs on any particular issue. One of the most enduring of these came from Ronald Reagan on the subject of welfare. He cited a Chicago "Welfare Queen" who had ripped off $150,000 from the government, using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards, and four fictional dead husbands. The country was outraged; Reagan dutifully promised to roll back welfare; and ever since, the "Welfare Queen" driving her "Welfare Cadillac" has become permanently lodged in American political folklore.

Unfortunately, like most great conservative anecdotes, it wasn't really true. The media searched for this welfare cheat in the hopes of interviewing her, and discovered that she didn't even exist.

As a bit of class warfare, however, it was brilliant. It diverted public attention from insider traders in their limousines to Welfare Queens in their Cadillacs, even though the former were stealing thousands of times more from the American people than the latter. Just one example of the cost of white collar crime would become apparent a few years later, when President Bush bailed out the Savings & Loans industry with $500 billion of the taxpayer's money -- enough to fund 20 years of federal AFDC.

Questions of class warfare aside, there is no evidence that there is a significant problem with welfare cheating. In 1991 less than 5 percent of all welfare benefits went to persons who were not entitled to them, and this figure includes errors committed by the welfare agency. (1)

Nor are people getting rich off welfare. The two largest welfare programs are Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and food stamps. In 1992, the average yearly AFDC family payment was $4,572, and food stamps for a family of three averaged $2,469, for a total of $7,041. (2) In that year, the poverty level for a mother with two children was $11,186. (3) Thus, these two programs paid only 63 percent of the poverty level, and 74 percent of a minimum wage job. There are other welfare programs, of course, but they either pay a minuscule fraction of these two programs, or, if larger, are collected by only a small percentage of welfare recipients. The typical welfare recipient remains among the poorest members of society.

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1. Figures provided to the 1994 Green Book, U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, by the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2. AFDC figures from U.S. Social Security Administration. Food Stamp figures from U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Annual Historical Review of FNS Programs" and unpublished data.

3. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Poverty in the United States, Series P-60, No. 185, 1993.