Who “Deserves” Our Help?

Restrictions on who "deserves" help in public programs are artifacts of racial exclusion

For some, the holiday season is marked by generosity and quality time with loved ones. For others, it’s just one big reminder of grief and financial struggles. Unemployment rates may be low, but our economy creates clear winners and losers. Many people attempt to ease the hardship of others through charitable gifts or volunteering at shelters, but such help only treats the symptoms of systemic economic difficulties.

We need robust public policies to break cycles of poverty in meaningful, enduring ways, but a longstanding American myth hinders progress – that poverty or wealth is solely the result of an individual’s effort and personal responsibility, ignoring economic and social structures that boost some and constrain others.

This narrative bleeds into our public policies and political rhetoric, which often make arbitrary distinctions between those who deserve our generosity and those who do not.

For example, adults must satisfy stringent childcare, living, and weekly work requirements in order to receive small grants through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – such as $569 a month for a family of three. If anything causes a hiccup in childcare, transportation, work or housing, TANF can issue “sanctions” to the needy families, reducing or even eliminating already small grants. The requirements are especially onerous for single mothers, families of Color, immigrants, survivors of violence, and many others.

Washington State has broken down some of these false distinctions of deserving and undeserving people. Earlier this year, the Legislature eliminated permanent TANF disqualifications and extended time limits for families experiencing homelessness.

The restrictions on TANF and other programs don’t just keep people who supposedly don’t work hard enough out of the system. They are also artifacts of measures explicitly designed to exclude Black people.

Before TANF, Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC) provided the safety net for the poorest families. Created at the height of the Great Depression at the same time as Social Security, AFDC was an extension of state-operated mothers’ pensions, which helped single mothers without a source of male income. Many federal programs during that era included criteria that barred Black and brown families from taking full advantage – for example, Social Security originally excluded agricultural and domestic workers, many of whom were Black.

The primary beneficiaries of AFDC were thus white women and their children. Even after the easing of racial discrimination in the wake of the Civil Rights movement extended eligibility to more Black families, the majority of recipients remained white.

Still today, states with the largest Black populations populations are also the states in which TANF programs are more restrictive and provide less generous benefits.

As Black people gained political and economic power in the 1960s and 1970s, white voters and politicians began questioning the efficacy of the welfare programs. Politicians exaggerated rare incidents of actual welfare fraud, like the case of Linda Taylor in Chicago, to create the infamous stereotype of the “Welfare Queen”.

The Welfare Queen changed the American understanding of welfare by racializing the debate around government spending.

Playing on existing stereotypes and popularized by Ronald Reagan, the Welfare Queen is an unwed, unemployed, woman of Color with many children, who cheats taxpayers to collect her benefits. She is manipulative, promiscuous, and lazy. The Welfare Queen trope embodied how the country imagined poor Black women. In this view, white poverty is caused by economic downturns and changing industries, while Black poverty is the result of laziness and a desire to con the system.

To that end, researchers have found that voters and policymakers are more likely to perceive TANF favorably if white families are perceived to benefit the most.

The Welfare Queen stereotype rendered invisible the fact that since the abolition of slavery, it has been the norm for Black women to balance long hours of low-wage work, family care, and community engagement – while dealing with overt discrimination.

The TANF work requirements and time limits established by the Clinton administration are a direct reflection of “Welfare Queen” entering the lexicon.

As we move into the New Year, we should dismantle the narrative of the deserving and undeserving poor. One way to do this is by removing punitive requirements in programs that support families most in need. For all families, the holiday season should carry more joy and generosity than fear and stigma.

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