This week marks the 19th anniversary of legislation that conditions income assistance for parents and children on participation in a disciplinary program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Over the lifetime of the brutal TANF regime, the provision of actual income assistance has been overshadowed by the imposition of rules and services to regulate poor mothers’ lives. As the Black Lives Matter movement shines a light on the racism of so-called criminal “justice,” it is an important moment to consider how the intersecting inequalities of race, gender, and poverty are reproduced in the policy that claims to promote poor peoples’ “welfare.”
Sexist assumptions and stereotypes about African Americans and Latinos/as were pervasive in the debate that generated TANF, a program that made limiting women's choices and ending single motherhood its goals. Although TANF is the primary national policy dedicated to impoverished families with children, TANF legislation did not include mitigating poverty, enhancing opportunity or attenuating inequality among its purposes. As a result, while welfare rolls have declined, poverty still stalks single mothers and their children. In fact, childhood poverty and extreme poverty have both increased.
TANF has done little to prevent or alleviate women’s and children’s povertyThe signal features of TANF were its elimination of the entitlement to aid for people who qualified for it, its imposition of draconian rules on those who received assistance, and an increase in flexibility for the states that would implement the law. The new rules included time limits, work requirements, and policies regulating reproductive decisions and family forms. Time limits imposed tight deadlines on individual transitions to self-sufficiency. Work requirements compelled recipients to take low-paying jobs, sometimes at the expense of further education.
We have enough evidence now to assess TANF. The program has increased participation in the labor market by recipients and former recipients. But the work lives of mothers who joined the labor market under pressure from welfare rules have not been secure. Wage work has not kept them or their children out of poverty. Nor have the publicly funded promotion of marriage and fatherhood eliminated the economic vulnerability of mothers who raise children on their own. Far from empowering families economically to rise out of poverty, welfare reform has proliferated policing mechanisms against poor people while repudiating the original purpose of welfare: income support to help custodial parents make ends meet.
TANF has done little to prevent or alleviate women’s and children’s poverty. According to calculations by the Center and Budget and Policy Priorities, in 1996, sixty-eight of every one hundred poor families received benefits under the program. Thanks to national and state rules that have made it difficult to get or keep benefits, only thirty-two out of one hundred poor families had TANF help in 2006. By 2011, when the United States was still in recession and unemployment was at historic highs, the number had dropped to 27. In the five years between 2006 and 2011, the percentage of families served by TANF fell in almost three-quarters of states. In other words, as economic uncertainty, unemployment, poverty, and inequality all worsened, the nation’s main program of cash aid for needy people did progressively less.
The disciplinary principles of welfare reform have shaped the whole domestic state. Time limits, proposals to compel low-income recipients to work for wages while parenting, and surveillance of recipients’ family behavior, became common in other anti-poverty programs. This year, there were even efforts to impose work requirements upon low-income recipients of Medicaid health insurance—a response to the Affordable Care Act that began roughly simultaneously in several Republican-dominated states. The 2014 budget of the Obama administration contained a clause that would have widened the ability of local housing authorities to impose work requirements upon low-income residents.
Welfare reform has been part of the “new Jim Crow” of rising incarceration for African American women and men. Welfare fraud under new rules has produced new criminals. The extreme poverty of people who are not eligible for economic assistance has no doubt driven some to crime. Others have lost children to foster care and adoption.
As welfare reform has enforced poor mothers’ inequality and their children’s economic vulnerability, it also has been deadly. In a study published in February, 2015, researchers reported that the policy established by the Republican Congress and the Clinton Administration in 1996 shortens lives. In two states, Florida and Connecticut, scholars compared the old, pre-1996, welfare program with the later one. The new policy shortened recipients’ lives by nearly one-half a year (0.44 year). It also saved governments approximately $28,000 per recipient over her lifetime. In Florida alone, the death rate for participants in the post-1996 welfare program was 16% higher than for people who had received welfare in earlier decades.
Based on our past experiences and the experiences of other industrialized countries, we know what to do to alleviate poverty. We can make decently waged jobs, with access to union protection, available to those who under TANF are often directed into poverty-level “workfare” instead. We can raise the minimum wage. We can make higher education accessible and affordable. We can seriously enforce the anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and end gender- and race-based pay disparities both within job categories and between them. We can make good child care universally available, with no cutoffs for those with earned income or for families who hit arbitrary time limits. And we can provide basic income to caregivers who are outside the labor market or unable to get market work that pays enough to support their families.
As we approach the 20th year of the disgraceful TANF program, it is time to overhaul TANF principles and practices to support the family work single mothers do and to open pathways to economic security.