The End of Welfare?

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Gwendolyn Mink*

The war on welfare was won long before Donald Trump’s election. The celebrated bipartisan welfare overhaul of the mid-1990s began a two-decade process of federal disengagement from the well-being of poor people, especially single mothers raising children alone. By 2016, the welfare system that once provided a modicum of income support for families in poverty was unrecognizable, in good measure because the federal government had changed the terms of support for individuals and had broadened the states’ flexibility in spending block-granted welfare money. By the time Donald Trump was elected, many states had decided to spend their block grants on services rather than cash assistance: services—such as marriage promotion—that sometimes have been aimed as much at non-poor heads of families as at poor ones.

The key accomplishment of the 1996 welfare reform has been the end of the guarantee of welfare assistance to all who needed it. Additional provisions of the 1996 welfare law compounded the brutal effects of cancelling poor families’ entitlement to aid, most notably: the imposition of a lifetime time limit on welfare eligibility, regardless of continuing poverty; strict work requirements for those who did manage to receive welfare aid; and incentives for states to substitute hortatory and disciplinary services for income support.

Because the war on welfare succeeded, the long-standing political strategy to win white majorities by demonizing racialized welfare mothers was not foregrounded during Donald Trump’s racist and misogynist 2016 presidential campaign. But the elements of that strategy—mobilizing white voters through race-baiting appeals—were deployed shamelessly throughout the Republican campaign. One consequence of Trump’s electoral college victory is the Republican claim of a mandate to do as Trump promised in the campaign: ban Muslims, deport undocumented immigrants, return to “law and order,” and more.

Trump’s social policy agenda is unclear: he had little to say about welfare, poverty, or income security during the campaign. But other Republicans have explicit plans to unravel policies that help Americans cope with the economic effects of inequality, weather economic vicissitudes, or navigate life circumstances such as old age or single motherhood. Those Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have been chomping at the bit to impose the welfare reform model on all programs conceived to help struggling individuals and families make ends meet. To be borrowed from the welfare reform model and deployed more generally against the safety net are work requirements, block grants, and further withdrawals of economic assistance guarantees.

The current leader of the crusade against the New Deal social contract, Paul Ryan, has been advancing ideas to defund safety net programs for at least 10 years. As member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010, House Budget Committee Chair from 2011 to 2015, and as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ryan has argued for tax-cutting the path toward deficit reduction by gutting spending for the poor and economically insecure. He is not merely a deficit hawk; his ideas are fleshed out by an Ayn Randian anti-government ethic tying social improvement to individualized self-help.

Ryan’s agenda cohabits with Trump’s proposed tax cuts for the rich, as Ryan’s plans would cut social spending considerably. For starters, Ryan would like to consolidate important safety net programs—food stamps, housing vouchers, and child care, for example—into a single block grant to states. The defining feature of block grants is capped spending: each state receives a fixed sum to spend toward designated goals, with a few strings attached (such as work requirements) but no elastic for when funds are tapped out.

Correspondingly, Ryan aims to drastically slash direct assistance to individuals. For example, he would like to roll back Pell grants and phase out Head Start. He would also achieve cuts by imposing conditions on benefits: hence Republican calls to intensify work requirements for (block-granted) food stamps and to tie work requirements to (block-granted) Medicaid and federal rental assistance. Ryan’s idea that work participation must be the goal of poverty assistance does not leave any population untouched: the Ryan plan calls for diverting the focus of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income disabled children from cash assistance to work preparation.

Although welfare policy provides a model for dismantling the welfare state, Ryan’s plan does not leave it undisturbed. The very first set of recommendations in his 2016 poverty white paper, A Better Way, concerns the need to strengthen work requirements for individuals in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and to reduce state flexibility to exempt recipients from work engagement. With Republicans in control of all branches of government, the question for TANF reauthorization will be just how fast and how far the federal government will go to make poverty assistance unattainable or its terms untenable for poor families.

The Republican takeover of the federal government forecloses immediate debates about how to fix the current welfare system to make it work for low income families, especially families helmed by single mothers, disproportionately of color. For the next little while, poor people and their allies will have to fight to preserve the status quo ante—to maintain such assistance as is currently provided by the tattered safety net. But a sizable majority of Americans did vote against the Republican way, and for a presidential candidate and party that advanced an intersectional understanding of inequality and poverty. The popular majority that voted for the Democratic candidate voted for equal pay, a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and accessible child care—all policy goals that would mitigate the economic vulnerability of low-income single mothers and their children.

Democrats did not articulate a platform for restoring the safety net in 2016. Nor did they look beyond the labor market as they strategized mechanisms to attenuate economic insecurity. But the outsize rate of single mother poverty (36% in 2015) commands our attention not only to the labor market, but also to the role played by the distinctive tension between full-time care-giving and full-time wage-earning for mothers who are parenting alone. We must center the ways in which caregiving and the lack of social support for it distort our economy and society and expose millions to the kind of vulnerability that undermines women’s self-sovereignty and the well-being of families.

One bright spot in the Democratic conversation in 2016 was unabashed support from both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for imputing economic value to family caregiving in the algebra of social security benefits calculations: both candidates wanted to credit workers who take time out of the labor market to care for a child or sick adult so that they are not punished for, as Clinton put it, “taking on the vital role of caregiver.” This powerful acknowledgement of the irreducible importance of family care work should smooth the way to future policies that build upon the principle that poor mothers (and fathers) care, too.

In the meantime, however, we need to resist in order to move forward. We need to defend access to social supports, however meager, and preserve funding levels, however inadequate. As we work to defend against further broadsides against social provision, we must do so in a way that broadens both the feminism and the economic egalitarianism that popular majorities support, but that have been trammeled by the Electoral College. Centering a poverty agenda on the multiple inequalities endured by the worst-off women—poor single mothers, disproportionately of color—would do just that, while also keeping alive the goals of reversing the damages wrought by the 1996 welfare law and improving social supports for families in poverty.

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*Gwendolyn Mink is an independent scholar. She is the author of several books, including The Wages of Motherhood (Cornell University Press, 1995) and Welfare’s End (Cornell University Press, 1998). With coauthor Felicia Kornbluh, she is completing a new book titled Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform after Twenty Years.

Header image (left): Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (1968) (edited). From Wikicommons.

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