In the past couple of years, conservative media has developed a narrative to marry social conservative angst about women’s greater freedom to economic conservative desires to slash government programs to relieve poverty: Argue that single women, single mothers especially, are using government generosity so they can rebelliously refuse to get married.
Back in December, Ann Coulter claimed on Fox & Friends that, “single women look to the government as their husbands. Please provide for me, please take care of me.” Andrea Tantaros echoed the claim later on Fox, saying that the Obama administration is deliberately trying to keep single mothers “dependent on the government.” Rush Limbaugh is a big fan of painting single women as government-dependent, whining back in November that “unmarried women are looking at government for everything.”
The obsession with claiming that single women are a product of government largesse hit the big time during the 2012 election, when conservative media obsessed over an Obama campaign ad showing how a female constituent is affected by government throughout her life. James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal denounced social spending as an “insidious attack on the institution of the family” because apparently the only way to hold the family together is to impoverish women so they are forced to stay in unhappy marriages based on financial dependency.
The argument depends on a number of risible and obviously untrue assumptions. It is neither true that single mothers are largely unemployed people who subsist solely on government payouts, nor that married women are generally housewives who depend on their husbands to take care of all their financial needs. Conservatives may wish to believe that there are two kinds of women, those who depend on “government” and those who depend on husbands, but in the real world, most women, regardless of marital status, actually have paid employment that is for more than just pin money.
It is also asinine to assume that marriage is an institution that women resist and have to be forced into by making it impossible for them to feed themselves or their children without a man to provide. Most women want to get married, and single women are usually single not because they are taking some kind of government-subsidized stand against being with a man, but because they don’t have a good man right now to be married to. The fantasy of widespread female rejection of monogamous commitment is pure right-wing paranoia that has nothing to do with women’s real lives.
But what is particularly insidious about this conservative claim about single women making government their “husband” is that it paints a wholly incorrect image of who, exactly, is the beneficiary of government spending. Conservatives would dearly love to stigmatize social spending by linking it to single motherhood—and therefore to a host of nasty stereotypes they have of single mothers—but in reality, there is no reason whatsoever to believe single mothers are the main beneficiaries of social spending.
If you actually drill into who is getting what benefits from the government, a much different picture emerges. Indeed, the first thing you realize is there is no “typical” recipient of government aid. If you want to see who in this country is on the government dole, it turns out that the answer is “everyone.” It’s just that some of us get our government assistance in ways that allow us to lie to ourselves and pretend that we’re not getting that assistance. But, the ugly truth is that if you want to see an image of a “welfare queen,” the quickest place to look is in the bathroom mirror.
Taking a broader view, there’s no reason whatsoever to think that single mothers, particularly single mothers living in poverty, are the biggest beneficiaries of government spending. As Brad Plumer of the Washington Post explained in September 2012, by far the largest group of recipients, with money sent to them directly by checks, is not, as conservatives assume, single mothers. No, 53 percent of direct cash entitlements go to people over 65 years old. Another 20 percent goes to disabled people and another 18 percent to working people, leaving only 9 percent for non-disabled, non-working people that conservatives like to pretend make up the bulk of recipients of social spending.
Of course, direct cash payments are hardly the only way the government helps people out. Tax expenditures are also a government benefit that should be considered no different than direct cash payments, because, at the end of the day, whether the government mails you a check or gives you a tax break, the result is the same: More money to you, less money in the government coffers. As Plumer demonstrated, if you incorporate tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction into your view of social spending, it turns out the real “welfare queens” are America’s wealthiest citizens. The top 20 percent of Americans receive a whopping 66 percent of tax expenditures, while the bottom 20 percent—the people who to scrape for every bite of food they get—only get three percent of this government bonanza.
Because of the myriad ways that the government gives money to people with tax breaks, one of the quickest ways to set yourself up to receive a whole host of government-funded benefits is to get married. There are over 1,000 government rights and benefits given to married couples, many of which take money out of the government piggy bank and put it right back into your pocket. Do you get extremely affordable health care coverage through your spouse’s employee? Thank the government who paid for it by giving their employer a tax break for doing so. Have a spouse who’s died? Expect to be getting their Social Security benefits paid to you, and, if they have a retirement account, you get to transfer their savings to your own retirement account, avoiding taxes on it. Selling a house? You can double the amount you get to keep without taxes if you’re married. Government benefits paid out to veterans and other government workers are also paid quite frequently to their spouses. If you’re rich, being married especially means you get a massive government windfall if your spouse dies, because your inheritance from your spouse will not be taxed as if it were an inheritance from any other relative who left you a fortune.
The attacks on single mothers are about peddling a paranoid fantasy to conservative audiences in order to keep them from thinking in any depth about the role that taxation and spending play in our nation’s economic wellbeing. As long as Fox News audiences are sitting around boiling with anger at imaginary women who supposedly rejected the traditional role of a housewife to be a sexually rebellious single mother living on the government dime, they aren’t thinking about how devastating to this country it really would be if we started slashing social spending so that our already outrageously wealthy elites could be even wealthier. As long as Fox is pitting men against women and married women against single women, their audience is not thinking about how the real problem is that most of us in the working or middle class are watching our economic opportunities disappear while the richest one percent continue to hoard most of the nation’s wealth. Misogynist vitriol against single women is a perfect way to keep conservative audiences from really thinking about the problems facing this country, and that’s why we can expect conservative media to keep churning it out.