Republicans’ Fixation on Work Requirements Is Fueled by White Racial Resentment

And everyone, including white families, will lose.

Women march in a Mothers for Adequate Welfare protest in Boston.
Women march in a Mothers for Adequate Welfare protest in Boston on June 29, 1967. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Ed Farrand/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Thursday afternoon, the House narrowly passed a Farm Bill that, if it were to become law, would vastly expand work requirements for SNAP (formerly “food stamps”) recipients, putting more than 2 million people at greater risk of hunger. The vote is the latest in a coordinated GOP effort to ration everything from health care to housing according to work status. The vote came on the heels of a sweeping proposal from the Trump administration to reform several federal agencies, including rebranding the Department of Health and Human Services as the Department of Health and Public Welfare—presumably to make its association with the now-pejorative welfare even more obvious to the public—with an explicit emphasis on standardizing work requirements across public assistance programs.

This “illusory emphasis on employment” was part of a multifaceted condemnation of the Trump administration’s approach to poverty in a report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council early Friday. Hours before the House vote, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., rebuked the report as “misleading,” arguing that “being able to provide for one’s self and family is empowering, both economically and spiritually.”

Haley’s comments fit right into the Trump administration’s crusade to sell work requirements as measures that promote the “dignity of work“ and incentivize “community engagement.” In truth, work requirements devalue work and demean the people doing it. People in poverty are required to accept jobs on any terms, while the labor they already perform within their homes and communities is disregarded entirely. This narrow framing of work and productivity has deep historical roots, and stems from a long tradition of exploitation that, then as now, disproportionately affects women of color.

Absent any evidence that they’re necessary or effective, work requirements gain traction because they play into the public perception that people in poverty—especially black women in poverty—are lazy, irresponsible welfare queens. At a political moment when policymakers are deliberately broadening the scope of what’s considered “welfare,” it’s clear that consequences of the American pastime of embedding—and accepting—racism in public policy will ultimately envelop anyone below a certain net worth. In states where Trump’s agenda is already in practice, we can glimpse what’s in store for millions more Americans if this vision is fully realized.

In many ways, Mississippi provides this playbook. Last April we interviewed women in Jackson about their experiences accessing supports like SNAP and TANF (cash assistance, or “welfare”). One woman, Carla (a pseudonym, which is standard in such policy research), has held numerous paying jobs in her adult life and now also cares for her two young children as well as a brother, who has a disability, and her elderly mother.

She also shows up for other families in her community. When the city stopped providing a school bus to her housing complex, Carla began driving the neighborhood kids to school herself, improvising a bus using her 18-passenger van. Noting the curvy road with no sidewalks, she explained, “I didn’t want to see them walking. It’s too much.” These forms of productivity, however, are invisible within the “work requirements” rubric. And so, attending to the needs of the community becomes a casualty of meeting the requirements of the state. As Carla says, “You get on this program and then now you’re neglecting everything else trying to deal with the stipulations of this program.”

Within the scope of work that counts to the state, dignity is not part of the picture. As Carla said, “When you come in, [employers] already know you work for TANF,” and, she says, they treat her badly as a result. But with no power to negotiate for better conditions or hold out for better options, “You’re backed up against the wall; you can’t afford to lose this job.”

In one placement through her welfare office, Carla was fired after declining to clean the bathroom at the end of her shift—a duty that was not included in the job description as a teacher’s assistant. She said that she thought her employer was trying to find out, in her words, “Just, ‘How much will she take before she acts like how I think she should act?’ ” She lost both TANF and SNAP when she was unable to find a new job within 10 days.

Work requirements coerce women like Carla into no- or low-wage work where they risk exploitation to qualify for fewer than $6 a day in TANF benefits for a family of three. While “work activities” that satisfy this requirement in Mississippi do include jobs that are paid an hourly wage, they also encompass community service, work experience programs, and the provision of child care for another TANF recipient engaged in community service, for which that $6 a day is the only compensation. And the odds of receiving benefits at all are bleak: In 2016, Mississippi approved just 1.4 percent of applicants to the program, despite having among the toughest job markets and the highest child poverty rate in the country.

Fighting the latest proposals at the national level requires dismantling their ideological foundations. Ultimately, the proliferation of work requirements advanced by the current administration spring from a tree with very deep, racist roots.

To start, the predecessor to “welfare as we know it” was the mother’s pension, which, as long as it primarily served white women, wasn’t thought of as welfare at all. It was designed to enable widowed mothers to meet their basic needs without wage work, precisely because Americans believed mothers should be able to dedicate their time solely to the unpaid work of child care and housekeeping. Once more black women began accessing assistance, however, work requirements followed. With the Great Migration, Northern states increasingly imposed work requirements that were already commonplace in the South (and had followed more informal practices of restricting black women’s access to welfare to compel work during harvesting season).

With clear echoes of rhetoric from today, the 1967 amendments to the Social Security Act, which first established national work requirements for cash assistance, proclaimed that mandatory work would impart “a sense of dignity, self-worth, and confidence which will flow from being recognized as a wage-earning member of society.” Yet in her testimony to Congress about the reform, welfare activist Beulah Sanders foreshadowed Carla’s experience, evoking the long history of black women performing domestic work for their wealthier white counterparts: “One of the things we are concerned about is being forced into these nonexisting positions which might be going out and cleaning Mrs. A’s kitchen.”

Coupled with the overvaluing of any job outside the home, a central tactic in the institutionalization of work requirements was the devaluing of family caregiving, the very thing that led to the early mother’s pension when white women were the beneficiaries. Nixon, in a speech to the Republican Governors Association in 1971, decried a system in which “one person can be penalized for doing an honest day’s work and another can be rewarded for doing nothing at all,” completely erasing the labor recipients were doing within their home. Twenty-five years later, welfare reform established that women could meet the new TANF work requirements by caring for another welfare recipient’s child, but not their own; as Deborah Stone writes, “work for work’s sake became the new mantra.”

Critically, although work requirements and other welfare policies have been designed as tools of racial exclusion, they hurt white people too. As Michelle Alexander argues regarding the criminal justice system in The New Jim Crow, not only are the disadvantages to members of other races endemic of a racialized system, they are necessary to preserve its legitimacy as a “race-neutral” system. So, white Americans become “collateral damage” of racist policy.

The unemployment rate of a specific county, for example, is ostensibly a “race-neutral” indicator of how hard it is to find work. As such, the Michigan lawmaker who proposed exempting predominantly white, rural counties from Medicaid work requirements, while still imposing them on the counties that are home to predominantly black cities like Detroit and Flint, could argue with plausible deniability that charges of racism were “ridiculous.”

Contrary to popular belief, white Americans have always been the primary recipients of public benefits, and comprise by far the largest group of Medicaid beneficiaries. And the inaccessibility of benefits and the exploitation inherent in the “workfare” model lowers the floor for everyone, while incentivizing employers to “set wages at extremely low levels with the knowledge that welfare recipients must accept any job that comes along or risk losing their benefits.”

But due to the decadeslong political project of stigmatizing any form of means-tested assistance (as opposed to more universally available programs like Social Security)—which has relied heavily on the cultivation of racial resentment and derisive characterizations of “the poor”—even those who clearly recognize the inadequacy of the safety net and private market commonly call for further retrenchment rather than expansion. For example, as Julilly Kohler-Hausmann documents in her 2017 book Getting Tough, Californians writing letters to Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1970s commonly bemoaned their lack of health care, sick leave, or adequate pay—but rather than demanding their own access to these basic benefits, constituents argued that “welfare” should be slashed.

In a study published earlier this month, researchers found that white racial resentment predicted opposition to welfare spending, echoing the findings of a widely cited 2001 paper correlating race and support for welfare. In other words, the racism that has imbued anti-poverty policy for decades has further undermined the type of solidarity across poor and working-class people that could bolster demands for both higher wages and a more robust social safety net.

Our government’s ongoing role in stoking racial resentment and mainstreaming the idea that paid work alone is what makes us worthy of rights should be deeply troubling to us all. Carla’s words indicate she heard the message loud and clear: “The world has already labeled any type of assistance that you get from the government as bad. You are less than a human … You do not matter.”

Powerful new research suggests that these othering experiences aren’t just a threat to our sense of social belonging and economic well-being but to democracy itself. As Jamila Michener, author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics shared with us, “Punitive policies like work requirements … tell beneficiaries that they have little power, are not trusted, will not be heard, and cannot count on the government for help in times of need. Having learned such lessons, beneficiaries lose faith in government, forgo opportunities to vote, and disengage from politics more broadly.” Considering more than half of Americans will at some point in their lives fall below the poverty line, the scope of this underrecognized form of disenfranchisement could be vast.

Charting a path forward that affirms that dignity is a condition of our humanity, not our work status, will require codifying this value into our laws and policies. We don’t have to start from scratch.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial coalition of farmworkers, tenants, welfare activists, union leaders, and others demanding that Congress take concerted action on poverty, including through an “Economic Bill of Rights.” A key partner in the campaign was the National Welfare Rights Organization, a coalition of thousands of welfare recipients across the country, led by black women, which demanded “decent income as a right“ and emphasized the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on low-income women. Fifty years later, a revived Poor People’s Campaign is preparing to once again march on D.C. to fight for economic justice and racial equality; meanwhile, the city of Stockton, California, is piloting the first municipal-led basic income, which, importantly, will center community engagement in its design and evaluation—a policy feature likely to strengthen political engagement rather than erode it.

Certainly these ideas are ambitious, but our solutions have to meet the scale of the problem. And in the near term, rejecting the campaign to expand work requirements is a down payment on a future U.S. society that no longer treats the price of our paid labor as a proxy for our value.