It’s not too late for progressives and Democrats to rethink anti-poverty strategies

It’s not too late for progressives and Democrats to rethink anti-poverty strategies
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In April, 2018, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE asked the executive branch to review safety net policies for low-income people with an eye to strengthening work requirements as a condition of assistance. The Department of Health and Human Services complied, issuing a policy permitting states to impose work requirements for Medicaid recipients.

In July, the Council of Economic Advisers called for the expansion of work requirements in non-cash welfare programs such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and subsidized housing. To back up these forays into welfare reform, Trump issued an executive order to aggregate many federal safety net policies affecting low-income people in a single department to be called the Department of Health and Public Welfare.

Current proposals to make poor people earn access to the safety net through stable participation in the labor market have been announced with the bravado of genius discovery but in fact are not new.


The current anti-welfare policy menu repeats and expands the model of welfare reform adopted in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the Council of Economic Advisers saluted the welfare overhaul that produced the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, starting in its report: “This effort builds on previous bipartisan commitments to require and reward work in welfare programs.”

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) — “welfare reform” — which “end[ed] welfare as we know it” by replacing rights-sensitive income support for single mothers and their children with conditional, disciplinary aid.

TANF, the crown jewel of anti-welfare policy, imposed barriers to assistance, time-limited eligibility notwithstanding need, withdrew the child care guarantee for participating families, and valued marriage and child support over employment training and education as pathways out of poverty. There were many critics of welfare reform in the mid-1990s. But over time the false claim that welfare reform was forged in consensus has strangled public discourse about its terms and about more just alternatives to it.

Misogynist and racist myths about race, single mothers’ family structure, and the work ethic gave rise to welfare reform and underlie the pejorative and punitive strategy of its various provisions.

But one might reasonably have expected the force of these myths to abate over time, as the number receiving TANF aid decreased dramatically and cash assistance shrank as a portion of program expenditures. One might also have anticipated by now some collective self-reflection about the wisdom and humanity of TANF, for single-mother poverty persists notwithstanding the TANF regime. But rather than be declared irrelevant or erroneous, TANF-style welfare reform became the playbook for the Trump-era war on the welfare state.

Critics of Republican anti-welfare initiatives have fought forcefully against individual proposals, such as adding work requirements to Medicaid and SNAP. They argue that most people who receive health care and food aid under these programs are children, people with disabilities, and older people. They point out that the overwhelming majority of able-bodied adult clients of anti-poverty programs do paid work, but are in unstable jobs with wages too low to enable survival without some help. The federal minimum wage, $15,080 per year for a full-time/year-round worker, is a below-poverty wage for a parent with children at home, even for those employed full-time.

These arguments are necessary but partial. They illuminate the unbearable consequences of the current round of welfare reform but leave the TANF model undisturbed.

We see an urgent need to reboot the policy conversation about poverty, especially the poverty of single-parent families expected to make ends meet on low-income women’s wages. One pole of the debate may continue to make TANF its model for the entire safety net. But the other pole must resist playing whack-a-mole against bad proposals, and instead must reject the TANF blueprint altogether.

It is time to replace TANF with a safety net income policy that advances justice and economic security. We can do this by centering the communities and groups most disadvantaged by pejorative public policy. As TANF turns 22, we urge progressives and Democrats to reconceive income support for poor families on terms that advance the justice needs of single mothers, especially single mothers of color, whose families are disproportionately represented among those who need aid.

The starting points for meeting these needs are wage equity, workplace non-discrimination, reproductive liberty, access to education, guaranteed quality child care, and economic recognition of the value of caregiving for one’s own family members.

Our appeals may seem unrealistic given bipartisan support for the 1996 welfare law. But it’s worth remembering that many Democrats, including a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives, rejected the TANF model before Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonEpstein podcast host says he affiliated with elites from 'both sides of the aisle' Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose at Supreme Court Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration MORE signed on to Republican welfare reform. It was only after PRWORA became law that most Democrats circled their wagons around it. It is also worth remembering that a sizable subset of Democrats tried to reform TANF toward the goal of justice for mothers when the program came up for reauthorization in 2001-2.

It’s not too late for progressives and Democrats to rethink anti-poverty strategy, to remake the safety net as if low-income mothers and their families matter. The time has come to stop following the welfare reform playbook and fight instead for policies that bring justice closer to the people who’ve been deprived of it the most.

Felicia Kornbluh teaches history and gender studies at the University of Vermont. Gwendolyn Mink was an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). She is now an independent scholar and chair of the Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation for Low Income Women and Children.