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.
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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.