As the debate over President Biden’s sweeping “build back better” agenda continues in Washington, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin hasn’t been shy about laying out his demands, as Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and the White House bend over backwards to garner his and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s votes for reconciliation bill that’s been moving through Congress.

High on Senator Manchin’s list: adding so-called work requirements to the newly expanded Child Tax Credit. In a September appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, he derided parents who don’t work outside the home, asking: “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that people should make some effort?”

Asked what he thought of the West Virginia Senator’s remarks, Child Tax Credit champion and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown responded as aptly as he did succinctly, declaring: “I think raising children is work.”

Of course, so-called “work requirements”—the policy of using survival benefits as a tool to compel paid work outside the home—is not a new idea. Indeed they were the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s agenda to dismantle the safety net for the better part of his one-term presidency.

But the notion of so-called work requirements dates back a lot farther than Trump—and even a lot farther back than Ronald Reagan’s racist myth of the welfare queen. Indeed, as a recent report from the Center of the Study of Social Policy documents in painstaking depth, the long and sordid history of work requirements in U.S. income policy has roots that trace back centuries to the slave trade.

So given the Senator from West Virginia’s continued interest in keeping work requirements alive, instead of turning the page on this kind of policymaking-by-dog-whistle and ensuring that all families have what they need to thrive—we at Off-Kilter thought it might be helpful to take a deep dive into the racist roots of work requirements.

Joining Rebecca for this week’s show: Aisha Nyandoro, chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunity and architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust; Jeremie Greer, cofounder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation; and Elisa Minoff, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the author of “The Racist Roots of Work Requirements.”

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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality,  and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca  Vallas. 

As the debate over President Biden’s sweeping “Build Back Better” agenda continues in  Washington, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin hasn’t been shy about laying out his  demands, as Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and the White House bend  over backwards to garner his and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s votes for the  legislation. 

High on Senator Manchin’s list: adding so-called work requirements to the newly expanded Child Tax Credit. In a widely criticized September op ed, the West Virginia senator derided  parents who don’t work outside the home, writing, “Don’t you think if we’re going to help  the children, that people should make some effort?” 

Asked what he thought of the West Virginia senator’s remarks, Child Tax Credit champion  and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown responded as aptly as he did succinctly, declaring, “I  think raising children is work.” 

Of course, so-called work requirements—the policy of using survival benefits as a tool to  compel paid work outside the home—is not a new idea. Indeed, they were the centerpiece  of Donald Trump’s agenda to dismantle the safety net for the better part of his one-term  presidency. But the notion of so-called work requirements dates back a lot farther than  President Trump and even a lot farther back than Ronald Reagan’s racist myth of the  welfare queen. Indeed, as a recent report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy  documents in painstaking depth, the long and sordid history of work requirements in U.S.  income policy has roots that trace back centuries to the slave trade. 

So, given the senator from West Virginia’s continued interest in keeping work requirements alive instead of turning the page on this kind of policymaking-by-dog-whistle and ensuring  that all families have what they need to thrive, we at Off-Kilter thought it might be helpful to take a deep dive into the racist roots of work requirements. So, joining me for this week’s  show, I’m thrilled to welcome back two of my dear friends, Aisha Nyandoro, chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunity and architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, and  Jeremie Greer, co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation. And I’m excited to welcome onto the show for the first time Elisa Minoff, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the author of the report I mentioned, which is  titled The Racist Roots of Work Requirements. You can find a link to the report, of course,  in show notes. Let’s take a listen. 

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VALLAS: Aisha, Jeremie, Elisa, thank you so much for taking the time to join the show.  And Elisa, I think it’s your first time on Off-Kilter, so, welcome. It’s wonderful to be with all  of you, even if it’s just virtual. 

ELISA MINOFF: It’s a pleasure to be here. 

VALLAS: So, Elisa, your report really makes a compelling case here. And you write that  slavery, “paved the way for work requirements by promulgating an exceptionally narrow 

definition of work and popularizing stereotypes of Black people to justify their forced labor.” And we’re gonna get into both pieces here. 

But first, Jeremie, I’d love to bring you in to help ground this conversation appropriately.  And to do that, we need to roll the clock back to 1619, which was when the first ship of  enslaved Black people arrived at what is now Hampton, Virginia. And in order to justify  trading in human beings, white enslavers, of course, birthed the myth of Black laziness,  which necessitated a master to force him to work. Remind us of some of the history here. 

JEREMIE GREER: Yeah, thanks, Rebecca. Thank you, Elisa, for the gift of this report. But  yeah, our economic systems, the systems that operate, that move the economy in this  country, something that we at Liberation in a Generation call the oppression economy that  thrives off of. And one of the things that it has to exist is some level of low-cost, cheap  labor. And that low-cost, cheap labor at the birth of this country was free labor and free  labor provided by African slaves. And that is what accelerated the growth of the economy  in this country. 

And what we see over time, which this report lays out so brilliantly, is a consistent effort to  continue to reinforce that forced labor, that practice of forcing people into jobs that are low cost and really, really difficult and hard work: work that if you paid people the value that  they were producing, you would have to pay them a really good and livable wage, but our  economy not wanting to do that. And so, when we think about the United States being the  biggest and largest economy on Earth, we have to wrestle with that absolute truth that it  became that on the backs of slave labor and people that were forced into doing jobs that  made this economy grow. So, what’s so brilliant about this report is that any conversation  about the economy has to start there, and that’s where this report starts. It’s so wonderful. 

VALLAS: And of course, slavery is literally and definitionally forced labor, but the story  doesn’t end there. So, we’re gonna fast forward in time to the end of the Civil War. Slavery  comes to a formal end, but we don’t see the end of this myth: the myth of Black laziness.  Nor do we see an end to the debate over what constituted work for Black people in the  U.S. 

So, Elisa, I’m going to turn to you next, and it’s your report that really lays out the history  here in painstaking detail. So, it’s at this point in the timeline following the Civil War and  leading into the early 20th century, you document a series of experiments in forcing work  through U.S. public policy. And it all starts with the very entity that the federal government  had actually created to help formerly enslaved Black people, and that was something  called the Freedmen’s Bureau. 

MINOFF: That’s exactly right. And I think what’s important to recognize is that at the end of the Civil War, we’re at a point in this country where we’ve fought a war over slavery. The  people who defended slavery defended slavery in part by invoking this racist myth that  Black people do not want to work in order to justify the system from which they profited.  The people who fought against slavery held up this vision of freed labor. But at the end of  the Civil War, there’s a lot that’s in flux. And freed people, Black people, are fighting for  control over their own labor and their own economic autonomy, even as many white  people in the South continue to fight for their right to control and exploit the labor of Black  people. And this is really where the Freedmen’s Bureau enters. 

You have a federal agency who’s charged with supporting free people and displaced  people at the end of the Civil War. And they just are largely run by Union generals who 

fought against slavery. But these Union generals kind of have imbibed this racist myth that  Black people don’t want to work, and they see part of their job as sort of rebuilding the  economy in the South. And as part of that, they take on responsibility for forcing Black  people to work in certain circumstances. So, they enforce exploitative labor contracts  requiring Black people to work for very low wages, in some cases directly for the plantation owners that they worked for before the Civil War. And they also, sort of as they’re  dispersing aid across the South, sometimes actively withhold aid from Black families in  order to force them to work for low wages. So, in some places, the very federal agency  that was created to support free people at the end of the war actually winds up providing  more support for white people than Black people in the South. 

VALLAS: It’s not just the Freedmen’s Bureau. There’s also a sordid series of policy  decisions that get made right around this time that also pull the thread out from the effort to bring slavery to an end, although it ends up creating kind of a series of policies that many  people, many historians, call “slavery by other names.” And those include the  criminalization of something called vagrancy, an old-school term that maybe doesn’t mean  a lot to folks today, but really is the earliest criminalization of poverty, which gave birth to  something known as convict leasing and other sort of contemporaneous policies here.  Elisa, staying with you, talk a little bit about some of those other end runs that we saw  policymakers do to create loopholes that allowed for slavery by other names. 

MINOFF: Yeah. So, I think that really what you see happening is people turn to both social  welfare policies through things like the Freedmen’s Bureau and nascent local and state  public assistance programs and to criminal justice policies to force Black people to work.  And so, one of the most sort of vivid and horrifying examples of this is convict leasing. 

So, in the South, not only were Black people often arrested on pretense through vagrancy  laws, which are kind of akin to loitering laws today, and were actually declared  unconstitutional by the Supreme Court after a long fight, but in any event. So, Black people could be arrested essentially for walking the street. And then once they were imprisoned,  they could then be leased out, essentially sold out, to work for companies who would then  not pay them at all in most cases, and they would work under incredibly brutal conditions,  often. So, mortality rates were actually incredibly high in convict leasing systems. So,  companies profited from their labor. States profited from these contracts. But the people  who were in prison saw no benefit from their labor, no profit from their own labor, and in  fact, often suffered horribly under these conditions. 

VALLAS: And Aisha, as Elisa mentions, some of the policy history here as well has to do  with assistance policy, public assistance policy. And one of the first advents of that that we  saw was actually a program that came to be known as mothers’ pensions. They were  established really with the intention of helping white mothers and children, white widows in  particular. But talk a little bit about how we see some of that start to bring this  deserving/undeserving racialized line drawing into being through some of the first work  requirements. 

AISHA NYANDORO: Yeah, no. Thank you so much for the question, and I think that  there’s so much packed into Elisa’s study or report, which is the history and those pieces.  And while the support for work requirements we all know is rooted in racist thinking, it’s  also critical to point out it’s rooted in lies. White people have always been the biggest  beneficiaries of the social safety net, and Black women have always had higher labor force participation than white women. So, we need to both eradicate these wrong tropes, and we also need to interrogate what allowed them to flourish in the first place and how these 

began to be baked into our current systems and policies. Why do we think it’s okay, even  admirable, for a middle-class white woman to stop working to take care of her child, but we don’t extend that same reverence and grace to Black women who want to stay home with  their kids? And that goes back to value alignment, and that goes back to really rooted in  the racist ideologies of who we feel is deserved and who we feel should be entitled to  access to benefits and access to the social safety net and access to the ability to create a  narrative for themselves.  

As Elisa’s paper explains, the idea of who is deserving or afforded dignity as a caregiver is  traced back to some of our earliest social safety net policies from the New Deal. And the  racist and gender tropes that drive work requirements are not just financially harmful,  they’re also psychologically harmful. And I think those are the pieces that we don’t have  enough conversations about. 

Beyond the policy effects, these dog whistles are extremely toxic in the ways that they  affect poor Black women’s vision of themselves. They know society looks down upon  them, and they begin to internalize that, thinking their options are limited and their dreams  are not worthy. And images and heroes such as Johnnie Tillmon with her work with the  National Welfare Rights Organization, which Elisa points out beautifully in this paper, are  erased from history. And we don’t even have that narrative of how these individuals who  understood the harmful work requirements that were being placed into the social safety  net, how that was impacting their ability to create a quality life for their family. We don’t  even include those conversations in the history as much as we should. And that kind of—  I’m sorry? 

VALLAS: No, no. And we’re gonna bring in lots more about Johnnie Tillmon ‘cause that is a name everyone needs to know. And the National Welfare Rights Organization as well. 

NYANDORO: Yeah! That’s exactly right. And that kind of damage is lasting and it’s  generational. And that is one of the pieces that we really have to work towards reversing. 

VALLAS: And so, Elisa, returning to some of the historical timeline here, right? We now  move forward in time one more time to the 1930s and to the New Deal, which Aisha was  just mentioning. And this is where we really see the birth of modern work requirements.  And so, we’re turning to you for a little bit more of the history here, which your report lays  out so incredibly compellingly. Here is where we see the birth of a program called Aid to  Dependent Children, or ADC, which, similar to mothers’ pensions in a generation prior, was really designed with white widows and children in mind, again, the quote “deserving poor.”  And in this program, we see a series of what you describe as de facto, as well as de jure  work requirements, which were explicitly designed to exclude Black families. Tell us a little  bit of some of the history there, which has a lot of echoes of what we’re actually seeing  right now in the Child Tax Credit debate. 

MINOFF: Yeah. So, we really need to look at actually sort of the conversations that were  happening as the Social Security Act was being debated. That is the act that gave birth to  Social Security in old age. It’s what we think of as Social Security today. It also gave birth  

to Aid to Dependent Children. And in those debates, southern Democrats had a huge  amount of power in Congress, and they resisted any attempt to create a federal floor for  benefits for Aid to Dependent Children. And they also insisted that states be able to control eligibility for the program and benefit levels for the program. And so, what happened once  Aid to Dependent Children, ADC, was up and running is that southern states created really impoverished programs: ADC programs with very low benefit levels.

And in controlling eligibility, they sort of instituted a number of different requirements to  basically deny Black families assistance and force them to work for low wages for white  people in the fields and in their houses. And so, they did this kind of formally through what  were often called farm policies. So, for example, in Louisiana in 1943, the state establishes a policy saying that when it’s cotton chopping season, anyone who normally chops cotton  needs to work in the fields. But of course, in Louisiana, only Black families had ever done  that work. And so, Black children as young as seven were forced to work in the fields and  denied benefits during this period. Those are sort of de jure work requirements. 

But you also saw de facto work requirements where Black families were simply turned  away from assistance. Even as white families would enter local agencies and get the  support they needed, Black families would simply be turned away and told there’s no  support for them, and so, as a result of that, were really forced to take these incredibly low paid jobs that benefited white people. And this is how white supremacy was really  buttressed during this period. 

And I think it’s important to kind of return to the point that Aisha made that these policies  really created something that the political scientist Ira Katznelson has called “when  affirmative action was white.” White people were benefiting from these policies  disproportionately, and Black people and other people of color across the country were  being excluded from the supports they need. 

VALLAS: And you’ve got some really just incredibly rich and painful quotes kind of  peppering throughout this history in your report. You’ve got a quote from one Black tenant  farmer who described some of these de facto discriminatory policies that you’re describing  as quote, “You go up there to the relief office, and they tell you they ain’t got nothing. And  then these old, poor white folks come out with their arms full of stuff.” And there’s sort of  quote after quote after quote of people describing what you’re outlining there. It’s also, I  have to say, just hearing you tell some of this history and also seeing some of the states  that are involved, there are really some eerie parallels with actually some of the modern day history around so-called work requirements, which we’re gonna get to as well. Seeing  Arkansas as one of these kind of leading edge states here, right, just brought back so  many thoughts of Arkansas being ground zero for Medicaid work requirements during the  Trump era. 

But Elisa, staying with you just for one more piece of this history here, and this was  actually a piece of the history that I did not know until reading your report. We’re gonna  jump ahead in time one more time to the 1960s, and this is where we see the notion of  work requirements really emerge on the national scene, not just as something that  southern states are being allowed the flexibility to inflict upon their Black residents, but  really something that becomes part of the national debate. And your research here, your  report, traces the first official work requirement in an American income assistance program to a highly publicized battle over public assistance in a city called Newburgh, New York,  where a young city manager caught the attention of a Republican senator from Arizona  named Barry Goldwater. 

MINOFF: Yeah, exactly. So, in 1961, there’s this huge political controversy over  Newburgh’s 13-point welfare code. And just to put this in a little bit of context, in the early  ‘60s the debate over public assistance really is becoming racialized. And it’s becoming  racialized in part because more Black families are actually receiving assistance than ever  before because more Black families are living in the North where they can now sort of, 

they’re now eligible for and receive it. So, what’s happening in cities like Newburgh is  they’re confronting what is sort of the tail end of the Great Migration, a larger portion of the  population is Black than ever before. More Black families are receiving assistance, and  this leads to a huge backlash. 

A young city manager in Newburgh responds to this backlash and rumors that were out  there in the community among white residents in Newburgh that suggested that there were actually signs in railroad stations in the South, saying, “Go to Newburgh and get paid for  not working.” And so, the city manager releases this welfare code that includes a number  of different provisions to limit assistance for families, including a provision saying that men  who were able-bodied needed to work in order to receive assistance and another provision saying that families who had recently migrated to the city needed to prove that they had  moved for work. This is kind of akin to some of the sort of regulations you see around  immigration. This is sort of they’re treating American citizens essentially as foreigners in  their own town. And this really leads to kind of a national debate around public assistance  and work requirements, specifically. 

Barry Goldwater praises the 13-point welfare code publicly. The New York governor,  Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, is relatively quiet on the issue, but it kind of pits  the liberal portion of the Republican Party against the conservatives. Liberals in the  Democratic Party come out against Newburgh’s code. And frankly, the regulations are  patently illegal. And so, Nelson Rockefeller as governor couldn’t allow Newburgh to  enforce it. And so, the provisions aren’t in the end enforced, but it really kind of highlights  on the national stage this question of should people be forced to work in exchange for  assistance? 

And there are Gallup polls in the wake of this debate over Newburgh’s welfare policies that suggest that actually, the American public is really in favor of forcing many people to work,  people who are able-bodied to work, in exchange for benefits. And so, that really kind of  feeds the first national debate over the first national work requirement in aid to families  with dependent children. 

VALLAS: And finish telling that story because that takes us really, I think, up through some  of the history we need to get out onto the table here. And that takes us to a program called the Work Incentive Program, which many of the Black welfare rights leaders pushing back  against this set of policies actually noted was a program that itself is called WIP, some real historical irony there. But it takes us to 1967 and then ultimately to 1971, where we see the first work requirements in place applying broadly to families who are seeking assistance.  

Just finish that history for us, and then we’ve got a lot we need to get into. 

MINOFF: Yeah. So, I mean, in short, until the mid ‘60s, a lot of the work requirements and  the discussion of work requirements is happening at the state and local level. But then, as  the debates over public assistance become racialized and sort of highly politicized in the  mid ‘60s, you see support growing for the first federal work requirement. And that leads to  the Work Incentive Program. Welfare rights leaders really are at the forefront of arguing  against work requirements in cash assistance. They are arguing that families’ work both at  home as caregivers needs to be recognized as work, as well as their work in the paid labor force, and that both need to be properly valued and remunerated. 

So, Johnnie Tillmon, as Aisha already mentioned, Johnnie Tillmon is really at the forefront  of calling for jobs with good wages that allow people to support their families, as well as  calling for decent public assistance programs for people who are caregivers and are doing 

the critical work of raising the next generation and supporting their families and  communities. And so, there’s a conflict in 1967 over this policy. Southern segregationists  who have incredible power in Congress help push through this work incentive program,  which is the first federal work requirement and requires some parents who are deemed  able to work to work in exchange for AFDC. 

And then 10 years later, when there’s a first evaluation of this first national work  requirement, what they find is that it actually doesn’t lead people to get jobs or get jobs  that allow them to support their family. And what this evaluation says in 1977 is that it  doesn’t, this work requirement, doesn’t promote or increase work because the problem is  not that people don’t wanna work. The problem is with the labor market. And there’s a  really telling line in this report saying no study has ever shown that people American  people, or any significant portion of the American people, prefer indolence to work, and  that is absolutely still true. 

VALLAS: And you also have another incredibly telling quote that really underscores some  of the real consequences here, right? A few years after the enactment of the policy, Robert Clark, who was the first African American elected to the Mississippi State Legislature in  more than 100 years, told Congress that the Work Incentive Program in his district meant  that the, “welfare system is used to support the racist and paternalistic economic system  which makes the program necessary in the first place. Welfare recipients are made to  serve as maids or to do day yard work in white homes to keep their checks.” So, really  summing up what’s really underpinning the Work Incentive Program. 

Aisha and Jeremie, bringing you back in here. The backdrop here is, of course, the Civil  Rights Movement. We’re in the 1960s here, the March on Washington in 1963, of course,  demanding jobs and freedom. And we also see at this point the launch of the national  welfare rights movement, not just a patchwork of groups in various cities, but really a  national welfare rights movement that is multiracial and many tens of thousands of women  and families strong, but which is unquestionably led by Black women who are demanding  not just adequate benefits, but also supports for families, and that all mothers’ work as  mothers be valued in many ways and with just really, really sharp parallels to what’s being  debated today around the Child Tax Credit. This really marked Black women calling out the racist subtext and taking the definition of work that white, middle-class families had for a  long time applied to themselves and saying, let’s extend this to all families, including Black  families. 

Elisa started to get into some of the history there with the famous welfare rights organizer  Johnnie Tillmon, who was chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization, the  NWRO. But some of the back and forth, some of the history at that time is really worth  digging into because it’s just so incredibly telling and revealing of what these white  members of Congress were really pushing for work requirements for. Aisha, Johnnie  Tillmon is a huge part of this history that, as you noted before, has largely been erased,  and so much of what she and others were fighting for sounds a lot like the debate that  we’re actually seeing right now around the Child Tax Credit. 

NYANDORO: So, this is the thing. What we’re seeing as it relates to where we are now,  with not just conversations around the Child Tax Credit and not just conversations a few  months ago around expanding the unemployment benefits, these are not new  conversations. What Elisa has laid out with this paper, and what those of us who have  been working in the field for years, this is just the same pig dressed up differently. So, all  the conversations that we’re having around extending the Child Tax Credit and whether or 

not we should get into permanency and whether or not work requirements should be  added to the Child Tax Credit, which I was like, oh my God. They’re trying to do TANF 2.0.  And if TANF 1.0 is not working, why are we trying to do 2.0? All of that really goes back to  still the conversations around deservedness and who do we feel is entitled, and who is  deserved of having a good life? And until we get to the place where we are aligning our  reality of where our values exist within this country and wanna have the really hard  conversations, that when we say who is entitled to a good life, we’re not talking about all  Americans. We’re not talking about all residents of this country. We are talking about a  subsection. We’re talking about a few. We are definitely not talking about brown and Black  women and children. 

And so, a lot of what is happening when we are asking for reform in policies, and as we  are getting closer to getting to those reforms and changes in policies, it’s fear. Individuals  are afraid of what will happen to them and what it is in their quote-unquote “good life” if  individuals are not showing up and keeping their kids for $10 an hour. If individuals are no  longer saying, “You are going to get me to labor for you for $7.25 cents an hour.” If  individuals are saying, “For the first time, you’re not going to get my labor without my  liberation because I know what it is that I am worth.” And that’s what we’re seeing. And so,  a lot of the pushback, even though these policies and what we’re seeing, like I said, it’s  nothing new, the pushback and the pushback at the level that we’re seeing it is new. It’s  not something that we’ve seen for decades. And it has people afraid. And they should be  afraid because folks are sick of this sh*t. I’m sorry. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to cuss. My  bad. People are sick of this, and people are sick of this because they are sick of people  assigning a narrative onto them that is not rooted in anything but satire. 

Every woman that I work with wants to work. Just this week, I was having conversations  with mothers who are begging, begging for childcare so that they don’t have to quit their  jobs. And we’re not having conversations about the childcare infrastructure issues in a way in which we should in order to make sure that we’re getting to childcare reform in a way  that benefits all. Just in Mississippi alone, there’s so much red tape to getting childcare  vouchers that 90 percent of eligible families actually don’t have access to them. The  money’s there, but there’s so much red tape that is put into place by this administration— and Mississippi’s not the only place. Administrations throughout the South and other  places—that families can’t go about accessing this. And we don’t talk about red tape, and  we don’t talk about the cost that it actually takes to go about assessing benefits when we  put in place all of these barriers that makes it very difficult, or pretty much, in essence,  makes it impossible for families to go about getting the support they need. 

VALLAS: It’s notable to me that a big part of the history here—and I don’t wanna gloss  over it because it’s part of the history that I think doesn’t often get told—it’s the bipartisan  complicity in the 1996 welfare law, which of course was birthed largely by President Bill  Clinton, is well known. But the bipartisan history and actually some of the origins here of  liberals in Congress being the ones to really open the door to some of the earliest national  work requirements, Elisa, that you were describing, I think is worth actually bringing in and  underscoring just a little bit here. Because as the saying goes, the road to hell is often  paved with what sound like good intentions. And so, underpinning some of where that  started was this notion of, well, we need rehabilitation for people on public assistance. 

And that was really what got some Democrats to agree and to open that door. But when  you pull the lipstick off of that pig, Aisha, that you just put in the room here with us, right,  and actually look at the real motivations behind this policy, I’m always reminded of—and  Elisa, you include this story, as you should, in your report—I’m always reminded of a 

famous exchange between Johnnie Tillmon back in the late 1960s, as the debate was  raging around the first national work requirement in Aid to Families with Dependent  Children, and then-Republican Senator Russell Long from Louisiana. And Russell Long  famously complains to Johnnie Tillmon in a congressional hearing that because of welfare, he couldn’t find anyone to iron his shirts. And Johnnie Tillmon famously responds, well,  she had ironed shirts for 18 years, but when she was too sick to work, she couldn’t feed  her children. 

And yet, we see Senator Long not really quite getting the message and eventually actually  walking out of the hearing, calling welfare rights organizers broodmares and insisting, “If  they can find the time to march in the streets, picket, and sit all day in committee hearing  rooms, they can find the time to do some useful work.” Not hiding the ball at all. There’s  not even, I think the phrase “dog whistle” doesn’t even begin to fit what we’re talking about  there, right? That’s just, that’s a bullhorn, straight up actual bigoted, racist rhetoric,  obviously. And that was what was the sentiment at the time as we were seeing this policy  actually rammed forward over the objections of welfare rights organizers. 

Jeremie, at the same time, this really takes us back to where this conversation started,  right: what the objection to letting go of a system premised on forced work might mean for  white people. 

GREER: Yeah, it all comes back to that because it is about how are we gonna force, we  need to force people in this country, it means force Black people primarily, to do work that  we do not wanna pay them the value for doing. It’s not that people don’t wanna do the  work. People wanna do the work. People wanna work, but they’re not being paid the value. 

And I wanna go back to the point around the Civil Rights Movement and that conversation, because what we saw from all that organizing and all of that work was progress. There  was a passage of the Civil Rights Act. There was a passage of the Voting Rights Act.  There was a passage of the Fair Housing Act. The Great Society programs came out of all  of that advocacy and all that activism. And what we saw was the legal context for that, for  forcing people into those jobs, to start to break down. And people were now having other  options, other possibilities before them than being forced into work in a low-wage job that  was not going to fully pay and feed their family. And what we saw then was that was the  pretext for the Reagan-era caricature of the welfare queen, bringing back those old tropes  that Elisa talked about, about laziness, cunningness, people trying to get around a system. Holding up Linda Taylor, who was actually a con woman in her own right as this picture of  what a mother on welfare looked like, which we all know was a lie and just not a truth, but  used to perpetuate all those stereotypes. 

Which led to a Democratic president, President Bill Clinton, ending welfare as we know it,  in his words. And ending welfare as we know it was again putting those work requirements on aid that was so needed by poor Black people, poor immigrant people, people that are  needing that aid to live in an oppressive economy. But putting those work requirements  again, forcing them into those jobs that were not gonna pay the bills and was just like hard, breaking work. You know, it’s hard work to care for someone else’s children. It’s hard work  to tend someone else’s lawn. It’s hard work to work in strawberry fields. It’s hard work to  stand over a fryer at McDonald’s. And to pay somebody minimum wage, which federally is  $7.25 an hour, to do that kind of work is not paying people what they’re worth. And the  thing that is forcing people into that is the structure of our economy and the idea that you  have to do that type of work in order to get any type of aid from your government.

VALLAS: Well, and as you bring us a little closer to present day there by bringing in the  Reagan era and that incredibly persistent, still very much with us today in a lot of ways,  myth of the welfare queen who became the face of what in many ways is still very much  the debate that we’re having now that we’re seeing this, let’s put work requirements into  the Child Tax Credit conversation really only gain steam and not let up, even though it’s  

only West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who really is advocating it at this point within the  Democratic caucus, but really racist imagery that is very much still with us today. 

Elisa, bringing you back into it to help us finish out some of the history from that piece of  the timeline. The 1990s, of course, brought us the 1996 welfare law that Jeremie is  describing. And at that moment in time, it wasn’t just Reagan’s racist rhetoric that had laid  the groundwork. Black people were very much the face of that debate, and in fact, it was  two Black mothers who had been helped by the program that the 1996 welfare law ended —AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, replaced with a program that now is  just a shell of an aid program, TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—it was  actually to Black mothers who had been helped by AFDC that Bill Clinton picked to flank  him as he was signing that bill into law. 

MINOFF: Yeah, and one of the things that’s important to remember is that even before the  ‘96 law was signed, there was a lot of experimentation happening at the state level around  work requirements and time limits and other ways to limit assistance for families under  AFDC. And the Clinton administration had allowed this to happen through the waiver  process. Arkansas was one of the states that did a lot of experimentation. And then the two mothers who were chosen to sort of symbolize what was happening with welfare reform  had, at the time that they stood at Bill Clinton’s side when he signed PRWPOA into law,  they had gotten some support going back to work from the policies in place. 

But when the New York Times journalist Jason DeParle followed up with these same  women months later and years later, they found that like many other people who needed  assistance during this era, they eventually were pushed into very insecure jobs, low-paid  jobs, and so were unemployed also for long periods. And that’s really what happens in the  ‘90s with welfare reform. When restrictions like work requirements and many others are  put into place, cash assistance becomes less available to all families who need it and  pushes them into these incredibly low-paid, insecure jobs that do not make their families  better off, and in some cases, make them worse off because now they have the cost of  childcare and transportation. And in fact, children are kind of harmed in the end. And so,  this is really kind of the immediate consequence of welfare reform that we’re still living with today. 

VALLAS: And we’re marking, as we have this conversation, we’re just a couple of months  after the 25th anniversary of that 1996 welfare loss and no shortage of research and  analysis and accounts of what the consequences of that law were, and Elisa, you’re  summarizing some of them somewhat briefly there. But one of the statistics that really  bears repeating and that, in many ways, sums up the story of how failed a program TANF,  Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, really is not just because of work requirements,  but also because of flat-funded block grant funding, right, a structure that means that it  loses resources over time. 

In 1996, 68 of every 100 families with kids who were living in poverty received some type  of direct financial assistance through the programs, so 68 of 100 families with kids who  were poor. But today it’s 23 out of every 100 families who are living in poverty and have  children who are helped by this program. So, just a tiny, tiny fraction, not because those 

families are somehow better off and, Elisa, as you said, getting better jobs, and that’s why  they don’t need the assistance. It’s because the program is designed in a way that’s  without regard for whether a person ends up better off if they lose assistance. And all of  that is a lot of what the remarking over the course of the past couple of months of where  do things stand 25 years on, after this 1996 welfare law became law, as Elisa has really  observed and pointed out. 

One of the themes that really appears as something of a through line throughout the multi century story that all of you have been weaving together here is the role of the media in  perpetuating the racist and sexist tropes about Black people as lazy. It started in many  ways hundreds of years ago with pro-slavery propaganda, but has also really maintained  as a theme and as a driver of the stickiness of this set of mythology into modern-day  media coverage that paints pictures of poor people as overwhelmingly Black or vice versa. Jeremie, how do you see the role of the media in this conversation as we look across the  centuries at the different ways that that type of racist coverage has played out? 

GREER: Oh, it’s fundamental to carrying these tropes forward. These tropes, if they stay  contained in a particular place in a particular community, don’t have as much effect. But  when they are able to hit mass media, that is what drives. Whether it was Birth of a Nation that hit movie screens, the first movie to really hit movie screens in this country which  depicted Black people as this like savage group of people that need to be ruled by white  power, where the Klan was the hero in the story. Or you look at—you know, I’m sure I’m  gonna upset some people here ‘cause they probably love this show—but look at a show  like Law & Order that has a history of showing Black people as criminal, poor,  impoverished, unwilling to work, looking to find end runs or shortcuts to get short-term  money, but need to be governed by this police force that is the hero of the story. 

These are the stories that drive these narratives and give context for someone like Donald  Trump to say that enforcing fair housing, for example, means that the Black people coming to your suburbs are gonna take over your homes. And it creates the context for policies  like work requirements or for Joe Manchin to say things like he’s saying today because it  places in the mind of the mainstream that Black people are someone that has to be  governed or parented by the government. 

VALLAS: And we can look at public opinion research as well as something of a mirror  image of some of what we’ve seen in media coverage that’s perpetuated the myth of Black laziness and what the consequences and impact have been on the public mind. 

Elisa, your report actually weaves together and documents some of the key public opinion  research from over the years that has helped us to understand how this set of tropes has  continued to shape particularly white people’s views of public assistance. For example, we 

can look at political scientist Martin Gilens’s groundbreaking and famous research in the  late 1990s, finding that the majority of white Americans believed that Black people could  be “just as well-off as white people, if only they tried harder,” making clear how deeply this  myth has pervaded Americans’ minds and particularly white people’s understanding of how the economy works. 

In perhaps an extreme example of how this manifests today, Elisa, your report includes a  story of a 41-year-old man named Trevor, a white man who lived in Tennessee. And  despite the fact that he was dying of liver damage and desperately in need of healthcare,  he was particularly proud of the fact that his state had not expanded Medicaid under the  ACA.

MINOFF: Yeah. So, I mean, what’s important to remember is that these ideas and this  perception that Black people don’t wanna work has been consistently associated with  criticisms in the anti-welfare sentiment and criticisms of government spending and  criticisms of government support more broadly. And so, this leads to people who are really  sort of so dug in, in thinking that any form of government support is a problem because it  will help Black people, or increasingly, it will help immigrants and Latinx people, that they  come out against programs that they will themselves benefit. 

So, when a physician talked to Trevor, a 41-year-old white man from Tennessee, asked  him about his views about Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, he said,  “There ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it. We don’t need any  more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for  Mexicans or welfare queens.” And that’s really it. There are these racist ideas and racist  tropes that take on power of their own and then are reinforced by racist policy. And it  becomes this vicious cycle that really, in the end, harms all families. 

VALLAS: And this is an individual who himself is, at the time, dying of liver damage but just really, really proud that his home state of Tennessee did not expand Medicaid under the  ACA, even though if it had, it would’ve allowed him to get lifesaving treatment. So, there’s  voting against your own interests and what’s the matter with Kansas, right? And in this  instance, this is really kind of next level. 

In the last few minutes that we have—and I wish we had two hours for this conversation  and not one because there’s so much more that we could really delve into—Jeremie, this  is really fundamental to the thesis of your organization, Liberation in a Generation, which is about fighting against what you call the oppression economy. And here we’ve been talking  about work requirements or so-called work requirements very specifically and the racism  underpinning them, which, as we’ve discussed, traces all the way back to the origins of  slavery. But this type of policymaking, it has much broader consequences economically,  socially, societally, and those consequences hurt all families. Talk a little bit about what you see as the way forward, which I think we can probably all agree includes abolishing work  requirements, but definitely doesn’t stop there. 

GREER: Yeah, I think that’s so right. The way forward is to stop letting these racist ideas  about Black people drive our public policy. And I think if we— And that is one of the  pathways to abolishing the oppression economy. Because if we’re operating an economy  that relies on the oppression of a group of people, that people can never thrive, and we  can never be to a place where we have an economy that’s working for everyone in what  we would call a liberation economy. And the pathway forward, one of the things is  something that Aisha’s working on. So, I’m not gonna go into deep about how it works, but  I’ll reference the policy conversations happening today. And it is this fight around making  the Child Tax Credit permanent. 

I just authored a piece, co-authored a piece, with Katrina Gamble in Next City in a column  that they run called Hear Us, where we make the case for making the Child Tax Credit  permanent. Because what that would do is under no condition other than that you have a  child, that is it, that you are the parent of a child, you will get support from your government in the way of cash assistance. And that is the type of path forward that we need to do,  where we are offering unconditional support to the people in this country, the workers, the  people that make this country run without them having to prove their deservedness in  order to get that support. Their deservedness should be that they’re a human being 

breathing the air in this country. That should be the thing that makes it so that people  deserve aid from their government. And the expansion and the permanency of the Child  Tax Credit would be a step down that path. 

VALLAS: And Aisha, your program, Magnolia Mother’s Trust in Jackson, Mississippi, is one of the leading examples that we have of actually why unconditional cash, as Jeremie was  describing, not only is the right thing to do, but it is also incredibly effective, and it really  does work. We don’t have a lot of time to get into it right now as our minutes start to tick  down on the clock, but I do wanna refer our listeners to an episode of this show just a few  months earlier in the year where I spoke with you and our mutual friend Dorian Warren  about the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, as well as the Stockton UBI pilot, Universal Basic  Income pilot, and other mounting evidence that we have for guaranteed cash as the way  forward. 

But I wanna ask you to comment on the theory that I personally hold, and which I suspect  others in this conversation may agree with as well, but that work requirements have really  become a tool over the years, not only for creating a pool of forced cheap labor, as we’ve  been describing, not only for social control of Black people, but also a tool for keeping  

racist and sexist myths and tropes alive, and in many ways, similar to drug testing policies  for public assistance, right? Which we know are a solution in search of a problem, but  which continue to remind people, “Oh, look at these people that we’re providing assistance to and how to blame they are for their own circumstances.” I’m getting all of that in, of  course, facetious scare quotes. That’s a big part, I believe, of why you and I, and I think  probably our other conversation partners here as well, believe that it’s so important for us  to turn the page finally on the work requirements debate of the centuries and to move into  an era of guaranteed cash instead. 

NYANDORO: Definitely agree with that. I think what we are seeing the harm of all of these  policies, it’s not just the harm that they do right now; it’s the harm that they can do in the  future. So, the policies they still, the families today, but it also it’s still there tomorrow. And  that’s really why we need systematic change and reform. And cash without restrictions— guaranteed income, Child Tax Credit if you have kids—it’s a way to move us towards  changing that narrative and moving away from the harmful conversations around work  requirements. And it really gets us to have the conversations that are most important  around deservedness and dignity and agency and trust. And it gets us to the place where  we actually are embarking on truth telling and narrative change. And that’s what’s  necessary to really shift these very stubborn and inaccurate mindsets about Black and  brown people getting something inherently, that Black and brown people, excuse me,  getting something inherently means that white people lose it and that Black and brown  people don’t want to work. 

So, the way that we can push back against those harmful narratives is with the truth. And  the truth is that if we trust individuals and give them the resources that their families need,  they go about the business of having a good life. And that good life just does not impact  that one family. It has a universal impact; it impacts us all. And it not only impacts us all in  this moment, it impacts our future generations as well. And we all want to be in service to  having an impact on future generations. 

VALLAS: And Elisa, you’re gonna get the last word, which I think is probably fitting, given  that it’s your heroic report here that has provided the foundation for so much of this  conversation about the racist roots and history of work requirements as a policy in the U.S. We talked a little bit before about the incredible similarities between the 1960s, 1970s era 

debate around some of the earliest formal national work requirements with welfare rights  organizers really clearly declaring that what they were seeking to do was to bring the  definition of work that white, middle-class families had long applied to themselves and to  extend it finally to all families, such that quote, as a Boston welfare rights organization put  it in 1968, “Motherhood, whether the mother is married or not, should be a role that is fully  supported and fully rewarded and fully honored as any other.” 

In this moment where we have a very high-stakes debate playing out around the Child Tax  Credit expansion that was authorized earlier this year in the American Rescue Plan Act,  creating a first ever national guaranteed minimum income for families with children in the  United States, the debate now, of course, whether to extend it, whether to make it  permanent, and thanks to Joe Manchin, whether to add work requirements to it. Close us  out with a little bit of what’s at stake in this fight right now, now that we have the first three  months of Child Tax Credit checks already out there in the world telling us what that policy  can do if it remains the way that it is. 

MINOFF: So, we’re already seeing and hearing directly from families about the enormous  benefit that getting a regular monthly income from the government can do. We know that  families and parents are using it to meet their basic needs, pay for groceries, pay for rent.  

We know they’re also using it to invest in their kids and spend time with their kids to do  things like take their kids to the zoo, pay for the piano lessons or the soccer league, and  doing things to invest in themselves too: so, paying for car payments so that they can get  to work, childcare, working towards post-secondary and higher education. And this is really opening up opportunities for families. 

And moving forward, we know that if families get this regular support, if all families who are eligible are able to get it, then we can not only dramatically reduce child poverty and  reduce hardship in this country for families, but we will see families be able to take the  opportunity that Aisha and Jeremie have outlined and grab it and do what makes the most  sense for them and pursue their own goals and dreams. And it’s an opportunity to really  advance racial equity and sort of turn the page on this racist history. I think a guaranteed  income for families with children can really be the first pillar in a larger system of anti-racist social supports—supports that aren’t conditioned on work or any other factor unrelated to  need—and actually provide families what they need to thrive so that we all can be better  off in the end. 

VALLAS: And I can’t think of a better note to end on. We’ve been hearing from Elisa  Minoff, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and author of the  report that we’ve been discussing and reacting to called The Racist Roots of Work  Requirements. You can find a link to that report in our show notes, of course, as well as a  number of resources from our other guests for this week’s show. Jeremie Greer is co founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation. And Aisha Nyandoro is  chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunity and the architect of the Magnolia  Mother’s Trust, an incredibly successful guaranteed cash program in Jackson, Mississippi  that, as I mentioned before, you can hear a lot more about in an episode from earlier this  year, which we’ll also put a link to in show notes to make that easy. Aisha, Jeremie, Elisa,  thank you so much for taking the time. And Elisa, thank you again for this just incredibly  important report and contribution to this conversation. 

NYANDORO: Thank you so much for having me. 

MINOFF: It was a pleasure. Thank you!

GREER: Thank you. 

[upbeat theme music returns] 

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry  band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the  show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every  week on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at  Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing  the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you  next week.