TANF: Welfare-to-Work, the other slavery by another name

TANF: Welfare-to-Work, the other slavery by another name

President Theodore Roosevelt stated in 1911, “Surely poverty alone should not disrupt the home,” in reference to his continuing to support the Mother’s Pension that was instituted in 1890.  He was only was referring to white women.

From the 1890 Mother’s Pension to the New Deal’s 1935 Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) Program and up until the 1960s, white women were given benefits to care for their children with no work requirements. This was viewed as the most humane way to support families. Both the Mother’s Pension and the ADC were for the most part whites-only benefit programs. They were provided to white women who were widows or whose husbands were unable to work. It was thought by our society’s leaders that white children needed to have individual, one-on-one attention.  It was the most developmentally appropriate option for white children. The alternative —institutionalized child-care centers in urban cities were not appropriate for white children.

Black women were always supposed to work.  They worked through all the wars. Black women worked through the 1918 and 1919 Pandemic. Black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation

A law spearheaded by white women in the midwest, who were short on domestic help, stated that even if your husband made enough, so that you could stay home if you were a Black woman you must work outside the home.  White women needed Black women to take care of their children, cook and clean their houses.

“Domes­tic work is root­ed in the lega­cy of slav­ery. Car­ing for the fam­i­lies of oth­ers often meant that enslaved Black women lacked agency and access to care­giv­ing for their own fam­i­lies.”

Ali­cia Garza, spe­cial projects direc­tor for Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA) in a  NDWA and  Insti­tute for Women’s Pol­i­cy Research report fore­word released in 2017.

ADC was mostly denied to Black women until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In 1962 when Black women were allowed to receive benefits the name of ADC became Aid for Dependent Families and Children (AFDC) to be more inclusive.

As Black women were allowed to access the AFDC, it was given the moniker and slur  “welfare.” The government also began to make many administrative requirements on home social structure and personal choices.  If you were on welfare, you weren’t allowed to have a man in the house.   Because that meant you were having sex out of wedlock. The conservatives didn’t want to encourage that kind of immortality in Black women.

As Black women became qualified for AFDC, the value of the benefits dropped. Between 1970 to 1994, benefits dropped by 47% when adjusted for inflation.  But the outrage of Black women receiving subsidies continued, so a change in the AFDC was instituted.

A work requirement and  name change was instituted. Bill Clinton changed “Aid for Families of Dependent Children” to the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” of 1996. This act instituted the changes that Bill Clinton campaigned on in 1996, “to change welfare as we know it.”

“Temporary Assistance to Needy Families”, known as TANF, began to bypass individual help. It instead passed out block grants to support women in getting off the doles.

Block Grants were a conservative innovation to get around federal requirements, like Civil Rights and giving a damn…. It’s a brilliant way to do “state’s rights.”

“The problem with “Block grants’ is that the funding levels tend to fall short of financial  need. Requiring benefit cuts, eligibility restrictions, or waiting lists. Funding levels are often inadequate initially and typically erode over time.” — Center for Budget Priorities.

Childcare was one of the beneficiaries of those grants.  Small or large businesses who hired people on a WOTC target programs such as SNAP, ex-Felon, & TANF received a Work Opportunity Tax Credits (WOTC).  When a company hires individuals of specific WOTC target groups it can get between $2,400-$9,800.

TANF recipients are thus forced into low-wage, two-steps-from-slavery jobs in industries such as childcare.

It also prevents just wages, unions, and continues the exploitation of the Black women workforce which began during African American’s legalized enslavement in the United States.

TANF work requirements draws from chattel slavery.

To this day, slavery’s legacy shapes American institutions and the assumptions underlying them. Slavery paved the way for the work requirement by promulgating an exceptionally narrow definition of work and popularizing stereotypes of Black people to justify their forced labor.

2020, Elisa Minoff, “The Racist Root of the Work Requirement.” Center for the Study of Social Policy


Women enrolled in TANF are forced to leave their own toddlers in the care of other people. Then those people are forced to leave their children. It is a bizarre, sadistic game of musical chairs where poor women watch other poor women’s children who do childcare and/or clean, and do clerical work for organizations that receive more in tax credit than what they pay these women in wages.

“We can’t get rich doing each other’s laundry.”  But it IS profitable to manage such transactions. It’s a genius scheme. It silences, disempowers, wastes time, and is highly developmentally inappropriate for children and degrading to the adults.

A single parent working a horrible job that pays poorly, would be better off at home with support for them to raise their child. The punitive consequences for partaking in the very natural act of procreation is unnecessary.

TANF is why childcare is open during a pandemic.

TANF is why you have predominantly middle class feminists advocating for them to go out there and risk their lives for “the economy.” People being forced to risk their lives, so other poor people can serve coffee and that being viewed as equity and social justice is a bizarro world.

Slavery, then segregation, and now TANF (all based in anti-blackness), is what keeps childcare workers wages low. It is what kept these workers out of the 1935 Social Security Act, it is what continues to keep these workers out of the teachers unions. It is what discourages the field from organizing for such basic rights such as not having to risk their lives during a pandemic, because if one woman stands up there will be one that is forced by the state to take her place.

TANF is slavery under a new name for women.

Stopping this atrocity is abolitionist work. Stopping this atrocity is antiracist work.

Abolitionist and antiracist work is fighting for stipends, food vouchers, and rent halts for all workers. It is not fighting for someone to be your nanny, cook your food, and type your letters.

Teka Lo, Public Intellectuals

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