June 19, 2014 | CUNY School of Law
In a recent Salon article “The right’s despicable class war: Why they paint the poor as anti-American” by Elizabeth Stoker, the author extensively cites Professor Ann Cammett’s paper “Deadbeat Dads & Welfare Queens: How Metaphor Shapes Poverty Law”.
Professor Cammett reasons that the way metaphor is deployed in public policy discourse regarding poor parents can powerfully shape public perception of both assistance programs and the people they serve.
Elizabeth Stoker says in her article “Cammett argues that the metaphorical context for major cuts to public assistance programs almost always precedes the actual cuts: that is, before pragmatic political reasoning is applied to weigh out the usefulness or efficacy of welfare programs, particular metaphors, many of them racialized, soak discourse regarding them. The most infamous examples Cammett provides are the notorious “Welfare Queen” metaphor popularized during the Reaganite 1980s, and the “Deadbeat Dad” trope pushed almost in tandem. The net effect of the insistence of the right wing on the usage of these metaphors was to make punitive cuts to assistance programs appear urgent and necessary by cementing an image of their beneficiaries as morally corrupt, perverse and malevolent.”
Stoker contends that David Brat, the Republican nominee for the general election in Virginia’s 7th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives uses this type of rhetoric in his essay “God and Advanced Mammon – Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”
The author mentions Professor Cammett’s argument again, “If Cammett’s view of the effect of metaphors like ‘Welfare Queens’ and ‘Deadbeat Dads’ is even remotely accurate, then it’s not difficult to imagine what the destructive impact of Brat’s brand of metaphor could be. The ambiently amoral characteristics of the Welfare Queen and Deadbeat Dad draw their power to maliciously smear welfare recipients from the otherness of their implicit racial markers, but Brat’s notion of the poor takes this process one step further. Along with dog-whistlish racial suggestion and strong charges of unethical participation in brutal systems of force, he calls upon Christians – who comprise 70 percent of the nation – to view the poor as separate from Christian virtue as well.”
Professor Ann Cammett (’00) teaches the third-year Family Law Concentration at CUNY Law. Her scholarship explores intersectional legal issues of race, gender, poverty, mass criminalization, and the family, and she is a recognized expert on the policy implications of incarcerated parents with child support arrears and other collateral consequences of criminal convictions. Her work in this area has been cited in two amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Turner v. Rogers, and excerpted for family law casebooks and other treatises.