The Public Secrets of Welfare

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Progressive Human Services






Taylor & Francis


The discourses surrounding the abolition of the federal welfare system provide an excellent opportunity to investigate instances in which people cling to erroneous beliefs in the face of clear proof of error. Gendered and racialized stereotypes abound in public discourse about welfare, and it is tempting to assume that those stereotypes remain in play because alternative information is not available. This article shows that in a survey of editorial coverage just before and after the 1996 federal welfare law change, ample corrective information was available, but certain features of the discourse remained consistent despite such correctives, for example, sympathy for children at the expense of blaming their mothers and the belief that the welfare system then existing was too generous. What, then, could help to explain the attachment to error and to unsupported beliefs? One productive approach is to apply Taussig's (1999) concept of the “public secret”: that is, something generally known but not explicitly acknowledged, which gains in force each time it is revealed. In the welfare context, two such public secrets can be found: (1) that the welfare system is harsh and punitive; and (2) that race and gender bias pervades that system as well as the wider social terrain. This article traces the revelation and reestablishment of those two public secrets, thereby offering an explanation, at the social level, for subjects' attachment to certain forms of error.