Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton signed legislation dismantling the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children welfare program. The law transformed welfare into Temporary Assistance to Needy Families—essentially block grants to states to use for job training and child care subsidies to enable recipients to attain financial independence and take “personal responsibility,” as its advocates claimed.
So, how would we assess the program two decades on, especially in light of Republican presidential candidates’ call for more devolution and state control?
The most damning evidence about the inequalities resulting from state control is a recently released report (pdf) by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights based on its investigation of the Mississippi Child Care Development Block Grant, the federal child care subsidy program. The commission found widespread evidence of racial discrimination in the distribution of child care subsidies that has disproportionately harmed low-income communities of color.
The practices of the Mississippi Department of Human Services seem to be another example of disregard for black life. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation. According to the report, 47 percent of black children in Mississippi are living at or below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic white children. Yet the state rates black child care providers more harshly than white child care providers, leading to reduced state funding to that community. The report found that resources for early child care and development are disproportionately funneled into white communities.
Overall, Mississippi has reduced the number of children served by 53 percent over the past eight years. Only 15 percent of the state’s eligible children are served, and the state has been reluctant to shift TANF funds into the child care subsidy program, instead leaving that money unspent. Meanwhile, the parents of many children of color cannot afford the high cost of child care, yet they also have little choice but to work to put food on the table.
The Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, an organization that has been advocating on behalf of low-income parents since 1998, sees the current child care system in Mississippi as broken—failing parents as well as workers, who are some of the most underpaid in the country. As Carol Burnett, director of the organization, said in her testimony (pdf) before the commission: Mississippi “sets policies that obstruct, thwart and harm parents and providers who rely on CCDGB.”
The 1996 bipartisan welfare-reform bill has utterly failed in its goal of ushering recipients into independence. It is well-known that most recipients have been unable to access proper training or education or find well-paying jobs. By giving states ultimate control and decision-making power, it is now clear that those resources are also being distributed in a discriminatory manner and being funneled into fraud detection rather than child assistance.
Perhaps the most distressing part about the narrative of welfare reform is the complete disregard for the value and importance of child-rearing and parenting. When welfare was instituted in 1935, it served a nearly all-white constituency and was designed to enable single mothers to stay home and care for their children. Eighty years later, a disproportionate number of recipients are women of color, and there is little discussion of the needs of children. We live in a country that does little to support the work of poor parents—especially poor parents of color.
The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn much-needed attention to the police harassment, violence and abuse directed at black men and women. Yet, black lives should matter not only in the hands of law enforcement but also in the hands of social-service providers. The blatant disregard for black life so evident in welfare policy has resulted in a growing percentage of black parents who are unable to properly care for their children and record numbers of black children in foster care.
It is time to broaden our demand about the value of black life and recognize how poverty and systemic state-welfare policies that marginalize black life are as damaging as trigger-happy cops.
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Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the recently published Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African-American Women Who Built a Movement. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project and other media outlets.