While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.
All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.
But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.
It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.
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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.
Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.
TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.
At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.
TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.
That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.
There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.
Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child.
Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.
TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.
The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.
TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.
As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.
Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.
The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.
While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.
It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.
Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.