Welfare Reform and the Politics of Race: 20 Years Later

By Premilla Nadasen

Twenty years ago this month, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). The act transformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federal entitlement program for poor single parents and their children, into block grants, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with the aim of removing people from the welfare rolls. Passed with bipartisan support, the 1996 act reflected a liberal/conservative consensus around the racialized nature of welfare and the need to encourage work rather than dependency. PRWORA resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of families in the United States living in extreme poverty, which economists call “deep poverty.” Its passage signaled the demise of federal antipoverty entitlement programs and the rise of an ethos of individualism and criminalization of the poor. The contemporary discourse of poverty, evident in the current presidential election, reflects the same deep-seated hostility to cash assistance for the poor that undergirded the 1996 reform.

Lines of people at the Baltimore City Welfare Office, Maryland (1975), Library of Congress.

Lines of people at the Baltimore City Welfare Office, Maryland (1975), Library of Congress.

When AFDC was instituted in 1935, it was a relatively uncontroversial program designed to support single mothers without a husband. It reinforced the two-parent heterosexual household and the gender division of labor—one in which women stayed home and took care of the children while men earned a wage. Its logic was rooted in both breadwinner ideology and recognition of the household labor that women performed. This expectation, however, rarely applied to women of color, who were much more likely to be employed, even after having children. And although disproportionately poor and single mothers, they were routinely denied welfare assistance.

State and local administrators of AFDC who were given latitude to determine eligibility criteria systematically excluded African Americans and Mexican Americans from welfare receipt through “suitable home clauses” and “employable mother laws,” which refused assistance to mothers who didn’t keep “proper” homes or who it was believed could get a job and become self-supporting. Some states denied assistance to mothers who had a man living in the home whether or not he provided financial support or was the father of her children.

Beginning in the 1960s, with urbanization, black migration, and looser welfare rules, a growing number of women of color started receiving AFDC. Despite the fact that whites were the single largest racial group on assistance, the media, as well as politicians—such as the notorious Joseph Mitchell in Newburgh, New York—expressed alarm about the changing racial composition of welfare. Tied to this were concerns about fraud, immoral behavior, and undeserving recipients. They explained the disproportionate number of black and Puerto Rican women on welfare as a problem of a culture of poverty—which scholars such as Oscar Lewis described as lack of motivation to work, sexual promiscuity, and a desire for immediate gratification. The culture of poverty discourse laid the foundation for arguments that recipients were the cause of their own poverty and needed to be educated and properly trained to ensure responsibility and economic independence.

In 1967 the Johnson administration instituted a Work Incentive Program (WIN), the first-ever mandatory federal employment rule for AFDC, requiring states to refer a portion of their welfare population to employment programs. This landmark legislation shifted the historic role of welfare away from support for single mothers toward one of expecting and requiring poor single mothers to take paid employment outside the home. The association of race with welfare and culture of poverty explanations were popularized by Ronald Reagan, through his use of the phrase “welfare queen” searing into the public imagination the stereotype of an inner-city African American woman with multiple children who was cheating the system.

Clinton’s welfare reform bill was both an extension of this discourse and marked a turning point. It was similarly rooted in a culture of poverty argument, evidenced by his racially coded language of dependency and people taking advantage of the system. Clinton alluded to the fear of black street crime, drug use, crack babies, the breakdown of the family, and the drain on public dollars. His primary goal in dismantling AFDC, as he put it, was to end the “cycle of dependence” and “achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land.” With support from both Democrats and Republicans, the 1996 reform was rolled out with great fanfare and promises of “ending welfare as we know it.” The aim: to reduce the number of people on welfare.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which replaced AFDC, limited lifetime welfare assistance to five years, mandated that recipients work for a minimum of 30 hours a week, and denied assistance to immigrants living in the United States for less than five years. It contained clauses to bolster heterosexual marriage and offer parenting classes. TANF also gave states the flexibility to spend funds on things like child care or job training, rather than direct aid to those in need. States were pressured to get people off welfare—now the singular quantitative measure of success for the program—and used multiple strategies to deter the needy from applying for aid. Administrators implemented complicated and demeaning application procedures and relied on fingerprinting and drug testing to weed out the criminal element—although there was little evidence of any kind of criminal activity among recipients. The net result was that all recipients and applicants were assumed to be potential criminals.

The welfare rolls have fallen since TANF was passed. The decline of welfare assistance, however, did not translate into a decline in poverty. Women, especially women of color, were disproportionately affected by the dismantling of welfare. In 2014, the poverty rate was 14.8 percent, but for families headed by women, it was 39.8 percent and for families headed by black women, 45.6 percent. The concerted effort to remove families from the rolls has meant that many poor parents are unable to support their own children, leading to an enormous expansion in the foster care system. Rates of homelessness are at an all-time high. While not all of this can be attributed to welfare reform, growing economic inequality and the Great Recession have exacerbated the problem of poverty in the United States and the shredded safety net means that the poor have nowhere to turn. In the midst of an election year, many American families are facing an economic crisis, and find it difficult to afford child care, housing, or even food for their families.

The political discourse today reflects a general concern about economic inequality, but it often elides the needs of the most vulnerable. There are important differences between the two major-party presidential candidates—with Hillary Clinton supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage and Donald Trump advocating building walls to keep out immigrants. But there are also similarities. Both Clinton and Trump have lauded the benefits of the 1996 reforms and, in particular, its work requirements. Both have promised to create more jobs, and neither has suggested any kind of cash assistance for the poorest Americans. In fact, programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, and disability insurance are also under attack today. Fingerprinting, drug testing, and work requirements are being implemented for recipients of these programs on the state and local level, or are being championed by policy makers and politicians at the federal level.

Although welfare as an entitlement no longer exists, the politics of welfare seem to have a long shelf life, continuing to shape political discourse. It is evident in the current campaigns that even the mere suggestion of offering financial assistance without exacting some kind of retribution is a political third rail that could doom one’s prospects for electoral success. As Americans struggle to find a solution to their economic misery, they would do well to consider how racism played, and continues to play, a central role in moving us further away from policies designed to shore up and support poor and working Americans.

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Premilla Nadasen is associate professor of history at Barnard College. She is author of Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (2005) and Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (2015).

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  1. Jason T

    There is some 67.89 million Americans receiving welfare, not including the 70.5 million enrolled in Medicaid.

    Of that 67.89 million, 26.884 million are black and since blacks make up about 42.748 million in the US, that makes it 63% of blacks in the US are on welfare. Unless I’m missing something…

    http://www.statisticbrain.com/welfare-statistics

    For hispanics, 25% are on welfare and for whites, which make up 247 million of the current population of 321 million, 11.4 million are receiving welfare, which is just 4.6% of the white population.

    There is a deficiency that needs to be addressed as to why such a high percent of blacks and hispanics are in need.

    Reply