Brokest SystemProgressive Candidates Keep Their Distance from Welfare Reform

a silhouette of a mother walking with her two children, one on her hip, through an apartment complex

Tanasia Butler carries two of her children on a trip to the store on December 27, 2017. She makes between $10 and $14 an hour answering phones for GrubHub and lives in public housing (Photo credit Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The battle between progressivism and centrism is on full display in the Democratic presidential primary: Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttitgieg are running a “middle-of-the-road” approach that offers small improvements to existing legislation. Meanwhile, progressive candidates, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proposing big structural changes, including Medicare for All, student-loan debt forgiveness, and free public universities, that would use tax revenue from the wealthiest Americans to radically expand the social safety net in the United States. But neither of these progressive senators, nor any of their more moderate counterparts, have talked about how they would fix one of the country’s most broken and discriminatory systems: welfare.

Championed and ultimately signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) “ended welfare as we know it,” as he famously said. The legislation ended the federal guarantee of support for single mothers in need and upended the federal standard of benefits by radically restructuring the nation’s welfare system. The law replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—the welfare system that had been in place for decades—with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), ushering in a patchwork system that allows states to determine their own laws and regulations.

Before TANF took its place, the AFDC had been providing financial assistance to families in need since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration made it part of his 1935 Social Security Act. The law enabled states to provide cash assistance to children from families with low or no income. In its more than 60-year tenure, the AFDC underwent several overhaul attempts, most notably when Ronald Reagan’s administration instituted deep cuts to AFDC assistance. In 1994, two years before its demise, the average monthly AFDC payment was $420, still a far cry from the average needed amount of $688.

The AFDC established a uniform of care provided to all welfare recipient citizens of the United States. Replacing it with TANF essentially enshrined a belief that access to adequate public assistance is only available to a select few. TANF requires recipients to have a job while receiving benefits, with no support for recipients seeking education. Parents and guardians who want to receive ever-decreasing TANF benefits and go to school are required to work at least 30 hours a week (20 hours a week for single parents with a child under the age of 6), and raise their families without any additional assistance. TANF also mandates a lifetime limit of five years, so no matter a family’s financial situation at the end of five years, they’re cut off for the rest of their adult lives. Beyond that, recipients can only receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. In other words, if you haven’t “pulled yourselves up by your bootstraps” within two years, too bad.

Some states have even begun imposing two-year lifetime limits. In 2015, Arizona lawmakers outdid them all: Facing a major budget deficit, they decided to sharply curtail welfare assistance even further by imposing a 12-month lifetime ban. TANF recipients in the state now get a single year of benefits before they’re booted out of the program for the rest of their lives, regardless of their circumstances. As a result, more than 1,000 families— including 2,700 children—have lost their benefits. (For those who believe parents are “gaming the system,” an Arizona family of three is eligible for up to $278 in assistance a month.) And Arizona is far from alone: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), TANF benefit levels have declined by at least 20 percent in 33 states since the law was enacted in 1996. Imagine paying rent, purchasing groceries, and covering necessities such as school supplies on $278 a month. It’s impossible, which is intentional: There isn’t a single state in the country where TANF benefits cover the rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

In every single state, TANF benefits are at or below 60 percent of the poverty line. In the early 1990s, under the AFDC, 14 percent of children lived in a family that received welfare assistance payments. Today, under TANF, that number has been sliced to a mere 3 percent. One in five children lives in a family with incomes at or below the federal poverty level today, and the United States has no suitable federal program that offers the logistical and financial support necessary to help these children and their families escape poverty. Rather than enabling low-income families to escape poverty, TANF is yet another blockade in the way of progress for those who need it most.

That’s because TANF isn’t actually about helping low-income families. It wasn’t created as a means to help lift people out of poverty; it was created to scapegoat low-income families for a host of social ills. The PRWORA of 1996 insisted that poverty is, as the bill’s title emphasizes, a problem of personal responsibility rather than a systemic result of broader structures of power. If low-income single mothers only worked harder, they wouldn’t be poor. If they would just get married, then they could supplement their income (some states have actually used federal funding to actively promote marriage among TANF recipients).

Insisting that poverty is an individual problem, rather than a problem of the collective, punishes those who rely on it for not being able to solve that problem on their own through humiliation and state-sanctioned policing. TANF doesn’t even help its recipients find work, the supposed reason for the legislation in the first place. CBPP found that the majority of individuals subject to work requirements remained poor, and some became even more impoverished. In fact, employment for single mothers has declined, from its peak of 72.8 percent in 2000 to 67.5 percent in 2014. And those numbers don’t even tell the whole story—they include underemployed single mothers, too.

But that’s not the only reason to replace TANF. In order to obtain the meager benefits that TANF provides for however long it does, recipients are subjected to a litany of reproductive policing. The amount of TANF assistance you can receive isn’t just determined by your zip code, but also by the number of children you have. Hostile lawmakers have found an ingenious and unscrupulous way around that with “family caps,” which allow a state to deny additional financial assistance if a recipient gives birth to another child. Indeed, many of the same lawmakers who vote to ban abortion also support family caps, which force recipients who become pregnant to either continue with the pregnancy and lose benefits or have an abortion they either may not want or may lead to them being criminalized.

For example: When he was governor of Indiana, Mike Pence not only oversaw the state’s TANF program—which includes a family cap policy that he never once challenged—but took money from TANF and gave it to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers. Twenty-three states currently have a family cap policy, including Georgia and Mississippi, both of which passed six-week abortion bans in 2019. It’s a punitive catch-22, meant to degrade TANF recipients and discourage them from making free reproductive choices. New Jersey and Massachusetts are among the states that have recently repealed their family caps; and while that’s a start, it’s hardly enough. What’s needed now is a complete overhaul of our federal welfare system—and along with it an honest conversation about TANF’s failures and the biases that led to the law being implemented in the first place. At its core, the issue of welfare is about deciding that some people are deserving of support and care, and some aren’t.

The media rarely reports on struggling families who lose their already-meager TANF benefits due to a family cap. And that’s because, fundamentally, we as a society still largely adhere to the harmful notion of “personal responsibility” as a cure-all for poverty. You’re poor? You didn’t work hard enough. You can’t afford to feed your kids? You should’ve stopped having sex. This cyclical, victim-blaming way of thinking has been fed to us for decades. In a racist society, the AFDC was open to attack by hostile legislators because we already fundamentally devalued the health, needs, and lives of Black and brown women. The racist trope of the “welfare queen” conjured by Ronald Reagan to demonize AFDC and its recipients as lazy, lascivious moochers, still reverberates in conservative rhetoric today. Never mind that the majority of TANF recipients are white––the racist caricature of Black and brown women freeloading off the government worked to turn the public tide against AFDC then, and it works today to restrict or even cut off the scant benefits that still exist to an ever-decreasing number of single mothers and their children.

Poverty exists not just because we refuse to do anything about it, but also because those who led the Democratic party 24 years ago helped ensure its survival.

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Every person, regardless of their income level or employment status, is worthy and valuable and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But there’s no dignity afforded to those who receive TANF benefits, and it’s beyond time for the Democratic Party to seriously grapple with its own shared responsibility in creating this broken system, and put forth a serious plan to make it right. After all, a centrist Democrat signed welfare’s death knell in 1996, and yet the party hasn’t bothered to touch the issue since. As progressives battle centrists in the party on large, structural issues, there’s still a lack of focus on welfare policy. Perhaps it’s because the party knows that this failure rests on its shoulders, or perhaps it’s something simpler: We are deeply uncomfortable with, and tend to turn away from, those in poverty.

TANF recipients aren’t writing big checks to political candidates. They don’t have highly visible celebrities calling for their emancipation from discriminatory family cap policies. There is no Super PAC for single mothers who need financial assistance to support their children and themselves. Low-income families are simultaneously invisibilized and demonized. As a society, we remain deeply uncomfortable with poverty, with the racist and sexist structures that allow it to continue to ensnare the most marginalized among us and hinder their progress. The right wing demonizes those in poverty as lazy moochers, while those on the left simply ignore them because we’re uncomfortable with a fundamental truth: Poverty exists not just because we refuse to do anything about it, but also because those who led the Democratic party 24 years ago helped ensure its survival—and progressives have a fundamental responsibility to not only address but center the needs of the most marginalized.

For progressive candidates like Warren and Sanders, who are running on platforms of developing a vast social safety net that would cover more marginalized folks and radically restructure the way wealth is obtained in this country, recalibrating our welfare system is a no-brainer. As it now stands, TANF is pocket change for families who are in dire need of support to simply stay afloat, and it not only denies them that—it does so intentionally as a perverse means of “inspiring” recipients to thrive on their own. But they’re on TANF to support their families. It’s the federal government’s role to provide them with basic rights like food, water, and housing. And it’s the duty of Democratic nominees running on platforms of widespread change to spell out exactly how they will do that.


Lauren Rankin, a white writer with short, brown hair, wearing a red shirt and red lipstick looks at the camera
by Lauren Rankin
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Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer covering reproductive rights and feminist politics. Her work has been featured at the Washington Post, Allure, Cosmopolitan, InStyle, Refinery29, Rolling Stone, SELF, Teen Vogue, and many more. She’s also served as a volunteer clinic escort at an independent abortion clinic in northern New Jersey since 2014. She lives in Brooklyn.