A Birthday that Calls for a Funeral | Opinion

The United States recently marked the 25th anniversary of one of our country's most spectacular political failures—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, better known as TANF. The program was built on the most American of myths: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. By requiring recipients living in deep poverty prove their worthiness to exist through implementing work requirements to receive aid, the impetus behind the policy was always based in morality rather than reality.

President Bill Clinton signed it into existence in 1996.

"We have a duty to seize the opportunity it gives us to end welfare as we know it by moving people from welfare to work, demanding responsibility and doing better by children," he said in the run up to its passage.

In fact, history shows us that while it did force people into work, the work ended up reducing the incomes of people living in poverty—a predictable outcome when people's only options are to take a job that does not pay a living wage in order to cling to their meager government benefits. Researchers who've studied the effects of the welfare reform package that included TANF found that it actually increased deep poverty, resulting in the exact opposite of what it was intended to do.

Why have we let such an ineffective program continue for a quarter century? While many will point to flawed economics, the evidence points to a far more simple answer: racism and sexism. TANF was created at a time when the nation was swept with an obsession over fraud in the social safety net, fear-mongering that began a decade earlier with President Ronald Reagan's dog-whistle calls of "welfare queens" living the high life on the taxpayer's dime. Clinton carried on the baton, running ads in 1992 with promises to end "welfare dependency."

TANF is the embodiment of these racist and sexist tropes, inaccurately believing that poor people are poor because they are lazy while failing to recognize the barriers to gainful employment put in place for women and people of color since our country's founding. Despite these hurdles, Black women have always had a higher labor force participation than their white counterparts. This is a fact disregarded by proponents of these punitive programs, resulting in a policy that hurts Black recipients the most. As a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found, "TANF's embedded racism and unfettered state control have led to a deteriorating cash assistance program for all families, with Black families facing a disproportionate impact."

A sign asks customers to wear mask
A sign asks customers to wear a face mask on April 26, 2021, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The population my nonprofit serves in Mississippi are Black families living in extreme poverty. Even though they all rely on government aid for housing and many for additional help like food stamps, almost none bother applying for TANF any longer. They've gone through the piles of paperwork, long appointments, drug testing, invasive questions and rarely receive anything. If they do, it's a pittance that is not worth the tremendous hassle. It's not that these families are not in need—they live on an average of $11,000 annually. Minimum wage in Mississippi is $7.25 hourly. This cycle of public demonization leading to punitive policies leading to corruption—state officials were recently accused of embezzling TANF money—is why communities of color have such a deep distrust of government. It's why our state and others with marginalized populations are struggling with vaccine hesitancy—people here have a long and reasonable history of finding it difficult to believe the government actually wants to protect and support them.

It will take at least the next 25 years to undo the damage caused by TANF. And it will take both political and cultural change.

First, we must reform programs like TANF so that they are actually built to help people instead of punish them. Shifting to economic policies that center cash without restrictions is a proven way to do exactly that. A new analysis of pandemic response, which was primarily in the form of unrestricted money like stimulus checks and boosted unemployment benefits, shows that these interventions have led to a record drop in poverty, and in record time.

We must also reject the racialized and gendered stereotypes that are harmful and inaccurate but that many prominent members of our country perpetuate today. It is up to us to push back when we hear others repeat these tropes, and to interrogate our own implicit biases to ensure we are not lazy in our thoughts and values.

Through policy change that aims to actually help instead of harm people and all of us taking on the personal responsibility to no longer accept damaging ideas of who is deserving and who is not, we can look forward to charting the tremendous progress we've made toward finally becoming a country that provides equal opportunity for all.

Aisha Nyandoro is the CEO of Springboard to Opportunities and the creator of the Magnolia Mother's Trust, the country's longest-running guaranteed income program and the only one in the world to focus on Black women living in extreme poverty.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.