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La vida, moynihan, and other libels: migration, Social Science, and the making of the Puerto Rican welfare queen

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Abstract:

This article is interested in how the "welfare queen" was born, that neoconservative icon that blames poverty on "bad mothers." This figure is usually located in relationship to the Moynihan report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. This article traces a closely related, Puerto Rican line of descent, through Oscar Lewis s La Vida. Lewis's notion of the "culture of poverty," located in that book among Puerto Ricans, was not the relatively innocuous paradigm that liberal anthropologists usually frame it as, and was in fact is just as scurrilous and libelous as anything Moynihan wrote. This article locates La Vida as part of a turn toward social science "solution" to a public policy problem: how to manage the mass migration of Puerto Ricans, particularly to New York. It suggests that La Vida solves that problem by representing Puerto Ricans as hypersexual, as bad mothers, and responsible for their own poverty in short, as welfare queens. It concludes with an exploration of the ways Puerto Rican activists formulated problems of poverty as structural issues of racism and labor.

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