Racing the Welfare Debate

History, Research, and Strategy.

By Gary Delgado Nov 02, 2000

It used to be that we didn’t have to do much to smash the racist stereotype about welfare. After listening to some know-it-all drone on about Cadillacs and welfare queens, all we had to do was point out that–uh, incidently, most people on welfare were white, and that would usually shut them up. These days, that dog don’t hunt. Bill Clinton’s welfare "reform" of 1996 converted one of the great lies about welfare into a true fact: that most recipients are people of color.

But ever since Clinton ended "welfare as we know it," whites have been leaving the welfare rolls (by 1998 they were less than one-third of participants), while people of color remain stuck in the TANF ("Temporary Assistance to Needy Families") doldrums, the successor to the six-decade-old AFDC program.

The Racializing of Welfare

How did this change in the racial composition of the welfare population come about? The answer, my friends, is not blowin’ in the wind but is right here in front of us, in the new, crass emphasis on work. The unremitting emphasis on paid employment as the heart and soul of "welfare reform"–and let’s be clear that those being "reformed" are parents, almost exclusively mothers, and their children–is a peculiar end point for a program that began in the 1930s to allow mothers not to work.

Conceived of primarily as a program to provide support for widows with minor children, AFDC was supposed to allow these women to fulfill their "proper role" and stay home with their children, safe from the harshness of the wage labor market. In fact, some thought the need for the program would disappear once the Social Security system kicked in and survivors’ benefits became available.

In the 1930s, of course, it didn’t occur to anyone that women of color might claim a right to welfare benefits. AFDC was intended to support the deserving poor (read: white and married) mothers and their children, albeit at a benefit level ensuring that they remained in dire, if genteel, poverty.

But that was then and this is now. In the intervening decades, and particularly since the 1960s, welfare and poverty have become associated in the public mind almost exclusively with people of color, especially African Americans. Although most people, somewhat surprisingly, support most aspects of the welfare state, the racial connection makes welfare an exception. Martin Gilens, in Why Americans Hate Welfare, examines in great detail both the race-welfare connection and the racialization of images of welfare and poverty that took hold in the popular media between the 1950s and 1990s. He finds that "the belief that blacks are lazy is the strongest predictor of the perception that welfare recipients are undeserving."

Race-baiting in the context of welfare was helped along tremendously in the 1980s, of course, by Ronald Reagan, who took every opportunity to talk about "welfare queens." The right then turned that blatantly racist image into a semi-respectable concern by creating the notion of "dependence." They managed to convince many people that, for poor women and children, depending on one source of money (welfare) was pathological, while depending on benefit-less, low-wage labor was ennobling.

By the time Clinton was elected the social psychologists spouting an anti-dependency line had made a pact with the right-wing political wonks and come up with a magic bullet solution to the "welfare problem": work. Any kind, at any wage, under any conditions. Even sweeping the streets and parks in exchange for a welfare check. Never mind the downward pull on wages overall if people working off welfare checks displace unionized municipal employees. Ignore the potential exploitation inherent in forcing a woman into a job, without welfare as a backup, that is her only means to feed her children. Work, after all, is good for everyone. Some just need mild encouragement, some need varying degrees of pressure, and some need out-and-out coercion, in the form of sanctions and time limits. In the view of the architects of welfare reform, forcing poor mothers to work for pay is not only in their best interests; it has the added benefit of isolating the "undeserving"–those who don’t really want a job.

Welfare Reform Is a Great Success: NOT!

By all reports, welfare reform is a raging success. And look how quickly it succeeded! The rolls have already been cut in half, and by even more in some states. Everybody is happily and smoothly transitioning from welfare to work. Self-esteem is up and welfare payments are gloriously down. The story is so widely circulated that even some of our so-called "progressive" friends believe it.

The problem with this story is that it’s not true. First, many of those being encouraged, pressured, and coerced to move from welfare to work end up with neither. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suggests that only 21.7 percent of TANF participants leave the rolls because they got a job. Almost as many (15 percent) leave because of changes in state policy, while the reason for the greatest number of departures (56 percent) is "unknown." People disappear from the rolls because they are "sanctioned" for missing appointments or because they can’t find childcare, or they are "diverted" from applying in the first place.

Then there are those who do find some sort of job and find their circumstances no better, or even worse, than on welfare. Although the economy is supposed to be booming, churning out new 22-year-old dot-commie millionaires every hour, to poor people the job market is less friendly than ever. Even most of the white "welfare leavers" remain below the poverty line, despite attaining the nirvana of paid employment. And for people of color, of course, the labor market remains discriminatory, as it has always been.

So-called welfare reformers pretended that pushing people into the labor market was somehow connected to getting them out of poverty, but actually, it wasn’t. Most poor people work for pay their whole lives. In fact, the likelihood of remaining in poverty while engaging in paid work is increasing all the time. In 1979, 23 percent of employed workers lived at or below the poverty line. By 1995 it was nearly 30 percent; for women it was more than one-third. Among people of color, the percentage of workers in poverty goes higher still.

Studies of what happens to women forced off welfare into the low-wage job market are just beginning to come out. Not surprisingly, they show that most of those leaving TANF have found their way into the gender ghettoes of service, sales, and clerical work where, even in northern industrial states, they are earning barely above minimum wage. In New Jersey the average hourly wage of former TANF recipients is $7.31, with more than one-third earning under $6.00. In Illinois the average is $7.17 per hour, with 37 percent earning below $6.50. Fewer than one-fourth were in jobs that provided health insurance.

A General Accounting Office report on former TANF recipients in seven states found that in five states, average earnings remained below the poverty level. Moreover, one-fourth of those leaving welfare for work soon lost their notoriously unstable low-wage jobs and returned to welfare. This has historically been the "safety net" function of welfare, but with time limits, these women will soon find the net gone and their families in free-fall.

And for women of color leaving welfare, there is the old triple whammy of race, gender, and welfare-recipient-status to shape their experiences in the job market. A 1999 study comparing the treatment of black and white welfare recipients, conducted by Dr. Susan Gooden of Virginia Tech University, found that black women earn less than whites, are less likely to be employed full-time, and are overrepresented in lower paying occupations. Gooden also found that black job applicants were asked twice as often as whites to complete a pre-application and that blacks were less likely to receive thorough interviews (45 percent as opposed to 71 percent for whites). Furthermore, 36 percent of African American respondents were subjected to drug tests and criminal record checks, while the 24 percent of whites who were asked to take any test at all were merely asked "character questions."


There’s more:

*A 1999 study conducted by the Poverty Research and Training Center at the University of Michigan School of Social Work found that 14 percent of participants in employment programs reported four or more instances of discrimination.

*A recent survey conducted by the Idaho Community Action Network in the cities of Lewiston, Burley, and Nampa on the availability of the Child Health Insurance Program found language barriers and racial bias in the administration of the program.

*Respondents to the National Partnership for Women and Families’ 1999 survey of employment service providers in Tennessee, Florida, New York, California, and Pennsylvania reported employer biases against either women or welfare recipients, or both. The survey also uncovered individual cases in Iowa where a welfare-to-work participant reported having to endure a co-worker’s racially derogatory comments on a daily basis. In Indiana, a woman left her job at a fast food restaurant after a co-worker made sexual comments and touched her inappropriately over several months.

So, while there is not yet an overwhelming body of research, the research that does exist clearly establishes that racial and gender discrimination is intensified by welfare reform.


Organizing Handles

Should TANF participants have less protection from race and gender discrimination just because they’re poor? In theory, they don’t. Legal rights abound (see accompanying sidebar). They’re just not where folks on welfare are accustomed to looking. And, the bureaucratic maze we’d have to navigate is pretty intimidating; every agency has its own policies and procedures. What exists is a hodgepodge of fragmented, complicated, slow-moving, backed-up, overlapping agencies, and none of them can actually address the on-the-ground problems of discrimination and harassment faced by a significant portion of individuals receiving public assistance.

Given the political realities mentioned earlier–pronounced rightward drift, an increased percentage of people of color on public assistance, and the public’s belief that work is good for self-esteem and welfare reform has succeeded in putting people back to work–how can we begin to renegotiate the current welfare "deform" mess? I’d argue that one of our strongest points of entry into the debate could be through the window of civil rights. A civil rights approach to welfare organizing isn’t traditional, but the new demographics suggest that emphasizing race and gender discrimination in the welfare system might be just the wedge we need to get into broader efforts to reframe the national debate as welfare reauthorization comes before the Congress in March, 2001.

Race and gender discrimination may not be the most screwed-up thing about welfare deform, but it is one of the few areas in which legal rights exist. These rights give us some handles and could give us a legitimate opening into the welfare reauthorization debate. We could initiate actions to put race and gender discrimination on the welfare reform radar screen, demand and win resolution to key individual cases, and secure new regulations from state welfare agencies and federal agencies responsible for civil rights enforcement. After all, if work is going to be the "solution" to all that is wrong with welfare, then the work arena has to operate fairly.

How might organizers proceed? A number of possibilities suggest themselves:

*Document and publicize: We could begin by documenting discrimination through surveys and widely disseminating the results through op-eds, speakers’ bureaus through local organizations, etc.

*Demand that state and local welfare agencies adopt strategies for addressing discrimination. We could do this through "hits" on local targets in combination with "administrative complaints."

*Work collaboratively with allies from immigrant, women’s, and traditional civil rights groups to plan and execute regional hits on the HHS Office of Civil Rights and the other government agencies responsible for dealing with race/gender equity. We would start by making HHS cough up numbers about cases pending, demand "group" hearings, and propose a streamlined, expedited hearing process. We could possibly make federal agencies issue state guidelines and push them into making some quick decisions on key cases.

We might also work with some of the civil rights legal organizations like the Legal Defense Fund, NOW Legal Defense Fund, National Partnership for Women and Families, the Welfare Law Center, MALDEF, Asian Law Caucus, National Immigration Law Center, ACLU, and the National Lawyer’s Guild. Working with these groups, however, is a two-edged sword. Most of them have lots of legal expertise, but no constituents, and many of them are close to the Democratic Party in a presidential election year. These could be problems when it comes to strategy and negotiations. However, coming into this arena with a base of low-income people of color could really make a difference.

Why Take This Approach?

Civil rights issues are gaining momentum in the welfare arena. The Office of Civil Rights is initiating special "task forces" to address some of them. However, no on-the-ground, grassroots force is in place to keep them honest. Whoever plays that role will have a place at the table. What we’d get is a solid entree into the policy discussion on welfare reauthorization which will be coming before Congress in March, 2001.

We could probably win some procedural changes on race and gender discrimination. And we’d win some cases, too. The big win, however, would be to change the public story that welfare reform is a great success. We could also move local organizations into serious policy discussions about what changes are needed for real welfare "reform": quality childcare, access to transportation, exemptions from paid work, due process before imposing sanctions, real educational opportunities, etc. A civil rights strategy could give us both firm legal and moral ground to win specific, immediate changes and a way for local welfare rights groups to enter into the wider debate.