Racist at its Core: The Continual Push for Work Requirements in Public Assistance Programs

By: Liza Davis
Executive Editor, Vol. 27

In March of 2014, now-retired congressional leader Paul Ryan appeared on a radio talk show to discuss the causes of “the economic conditions…plagu[ing] much of the country.”[1] At one point, Ryan said, “We’ve got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”[2] For those familiar with racist rhetoric and coded language, Ryan’s use of “inner cities” immediately suggested that he was implying that poor Black people specifically had no appreciation for the value and culture of work.[3] While violent on their own, Ryan’s words exist within a long history of racist stereotyping that continues to shape the use of work requirements in welfare and other public assistance programs to withhold assistance from recipients and force their participation in the wage labor force.[4]

In “The Racist Roots of Work Requirements,” Elisa Minoff argues that present-day work requirements are a direct legacy of America’s original formulation of forced labor: slavery.[5] During the slavery era, labor of enslaved persons was only valued as work if it was done for the benefit of, and with permission from, enslavers.[6] If enslaved people worked without the enslaver’s permission, then “state courts deemed their trade illegal, and enslavers characterized their labor as evidence of their inherent laziness.” The alleged laziness of enslaved persons wasa baseless stereotype that both justified the continuation of slavery as well as set the groundwork for post-slavery constructions of forced labor.[7]

After emancipation, Black people remained the “bedrock of the wage labor force,” with Black women participating “on average three times more than” white women did (with that multiplier increasing to six times between married Black and white women) while Black men worked “almost universally.”[8] Despite their enthusiastic and consistent labor participation, Black people’s work ethic continued to be questioned by white people. Relying on persistent, unfounded racist stereotypes of Black people’s “‘incorrigible laziness,’” the Freedman’s Bureau enforced coercive, slavery-replicating labor contracts against freed people while also “limit[ing] the relief the agency provided freed people, regarding it as a temptation to idleness.”[9]

Mothers’ Pensions, a predecessor to modern public assistance programs, were implemented primarily in northern states. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Black people still lived in the South, where states mostly refrained from creating new assistance programs.[10] Wherever they were created, Mothers’ Pensions were designed to “aid a group of people deemed especially deserving – widows and children – and that understanding of deservingness was racialized.”[11] A 1931 study “surveyed 46,597 families participating in the [Mothers’ Pensions] program and found that 96 percent were White, 3 percent were [Black] and 1 percent were another race.”[12]

Modern work requirements emerged with Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), a New Deal cash assistance program “created to support White widows and children who were seen as especially deserving.”[13] Because states controlled the implementation of ADC and other New Deal public assistance programs, they could decide who to exclude by determining the programs’ eligibility standards and benefit levels.[14] Using de facto work requirements, states “simply withheld assistance to families in order to force them to work” with southern states targeting Black families “primarily, if not exclusively” for such ADC withholding.[15] Southern states also created formal “‘farm policies’” that were typically used to deny Black women assistance and force them and their children to chop cotton and pick crops at harvest time while white women remained eligible to receive assistance.[16] Persisting for decades, these policies cut off assistance to Black families regardless of fluctuations in their actual access to paid labor. Thus, these public assistance polices “not only flagrantly disregarded the needs of Black families…who worked in the wage labor force, and desperately wanted to work more[,] but they operated to keep Black families in extremely low-paid occupations serving White people.”[17]

By 1960, 60 percent of Black women formally participated in the wage labor force as compared to white women’s 40 percent labor force participation. Similarly, Black men’s “labor force participation was only just below that of White men’s at the time, and close to 100 percent during their prime working years.”[18] As Black people moved North, they still faced systematic discrimination that funneled them into “low-paid, unstable jobs” which caused them to need public assistance.[19] Although “many Black people received public assistance while simultaneously working in poorly-paid jobs,” racist stereotypes about Black laziness revived the call for work requirements on the national stage.[20] Because of the Civil Rights Movement, national discussions of race, and “the controversial 1965 Moynihan report [that] sparked debates over the causes of Black families’ disadvantage, media coverage increasingly associated Black people with public assistance.” These popular associations of Blackness with public assistance led policymakers to extend “the longstanding norm that Black women should work to all [public assistance program] participants.”[21]

From the 1970s to the 1990s, political interest in work requirements grew as the labor market shifted from primarily unionized manufacturing jobs to a vast array of non-unionized, low-paid service sector jobs. This shift caused a drastic fall in wages for lower income workers during that time period. As wages stagnated, “racism helped [to] fuel the push to mandate work, ultimately driving people of all races and ethnicities into low-paid, insecure jobs.”[22] Welfare and public assistance policies in this time period promoted work mandates based on “an assumption that people receiving public assistance did not work.” This assumption was problematic because many families only temporarily utilized public assistance to cover gaps in employment or had to supplement their assistance with formal employment.[23]

This history of racism and forced labor culminated in the 1994 welfare reform bill that created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”). TANF had harsher work requirements than any of its predecessor programs, “requiring states to hold a significantly higher portion of participants to the requirement.” TANF also imposed limitations on how long a recipient could receive assistance and issued federal public assistance funds to states in the form of a block grant. [24] As a result of these policies, today only 23 out of every 100 families living in poverty receive some form of direct financial assistance through TANF, down from 68 out of every 100 families living in poverty in 1996.[25]

In recent years, welfare and public assistance opponents have also sought to expand work requirements to other public assistance programs including Medicaid[26] and federal rental housing assistance programs.[27] Under unprecedented guidance from the Trump Administration, Arkansas, Michigan, and New Hampshire were temporarily permitted to implement Medicaid work requirements between 2018-2020.[28] Though Michigan and New Hampshire’s programs were discontinued before anyone actually lost their coverage, 80,000 Michigan Medicaid beneficiaries (about a third of those subject to the work requirement) and 17,000 New Hampshire beneficiaries (about 40 percent of those subject to the work requirement) were on the cusp of losing their benefits.[29]

In Arkansas, over 18,000 beneficiaries, or about 25 percent of those subject to the work requirement, lost coverage in the first seven months that the requirement was implemented.[30] Apparently, the work requirements were only meant to target those beneficiaries not working or not eligible for disability or illness-related exemptions, which was an estimated 3 to 4 percent of those subject to the Arkansas work requirement. But every month, “8 to 29 percent of those subject to the [Arkansas] requirement failed to report hours or reported insufficient work hours,” which was an overly expansive jeopardization of beneficiaries’ access to Medicaid coverage.[31]

The expansion of work requirements to state Medicaid programs is yet another example of the harmful consequences of relying on racist rhetoric to determine eligibility for public assistance. Recent data also backs up the conclusion that work requirements are not only racist, but that they “do little to reduce poverty, and in some cases, push families deeper into it.”[32] Because work is “far more common among [welfare] recipients than is generally perceived,” employment increases among recipients subject to work requirements have been modest initially and fade over time.[33] Furthermore, while work requirements may have “encouraged recipients to enter the labor marke[t] sooner than they would have without them,” they rarely result in long-term rises in stable employment.[34]

A study of the NYC PRIDE program found that despite participating in programs that “successfully increase employment for individuals who face significant employment barriers, the vast majority of recipients participating never find employment.”[35] Many of these recipients were also worse off because they faced sanctions for not meeting work requirements, which then “took away their only source of cash income.”[36] 

By attaching work requirements to public assistance programs, “some of the neediest individuals with the greatest personal challenges or other barriers to employment can be cut adrift and left with no assistance to meet their basic needs – and with little or no access to the services they need to help them improve their circumstances.”[37] The legacy of work requirements is still unfolding, but considering their failure to increase labor participation or lift families out of poverty, their continued popularity is a direct consequence of the punitive and racist ideals upon which they stand. 

[1] Wesley Lowery, Paul Ryan, poverty, dog whistles, and electoral politics, Wash. Post (Mar. 18, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/03/18/paul-ryan-poverty-dog-whistles-and-racism/.

[2] Id.

[3] Elisa Minoff,  The Racist Roots of Work Requirements, Ctr. for the Study of Soc. Pol’y 4 (2020).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 6.

[6] Id. at 8.

[7] Id. at 8-9.

[8] Id. at 10-11.

[9] Id. at 11-12.

[10] Id. at 12.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 14.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 15.

[18] Id. at 16.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 17.

[22] Id. at 21.

[23] Id. at 22.

[24] Id. at 23.

[25] Id.

[26] Aviva Aron-Dine, Raheem Chaudhry & Matt Broaddus, Many Working People Could Lose Health Coverage Due to Medicaid Work Requirements, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities 1 (2018).

[27] Will Fischer, Work Requirements Would Undercut Effectiveness of Rental Assistance Programs, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities 1 (2016).

[28] Jennifer Wagner & Jessica Schubel, States’ Experiences Confirm Harmful Effects of Medicaid Work Requirements, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities (Nov. 18, 2020), https://www.cbpp.org/research/health/states-experiences-confirm-harmful-effects-of-medicaid-work-requirements.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] LaDonna Pavetti,  Work Requirements Don’t Cut Poverty, Evidence Shows, Ctr. on Budget & Pol’y Priorities 1 (2016).

[33] Id. at 3.

[34] Id. at 5.

[35] Id. at 7.

[36] Id. at 8.

[37] Id. at 12.