Oregon reckons with racial inequalities in revising cash assistance program
Welfare in America – from the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program enacted during the Great Depression to its 1960s replacement Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and today’s Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF) program – is inseparable from our country’s history of racism. Designed to assist single mothers deemed deserving by the state, ADC’s purpose was to keep women approved for the program (i.e. White and “morally” acceptable) at home to raise children. When racial discrimination began to ease in the 1950s and more Black women were able to seek cash assistance, anti-welfare backlash took root (Vox).
Policymakers and public figures throughout the history of these programs have used racist justifications and stereotypes about Black mothers “to question Black women’s reproductive choices, coerce Black women to work in exploitative conditions, and control, deride, and punish Black women who receive cash assistance” (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).
The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was meant to make welfare in America better and fairer, but a Republican sweep in 1994 pushed the welfare reform debate to the right. By the time Bill Clinton signed the bill “the legislation ended the welfare entitlement, a heretofore sixty-year federal guarantee that all poor people who qualified would receive the benefit. It instituted work requirements and limited the number of years parents could receive welfare over their lifetimes” (BlackPast).
TANF, the new program established by the 1996 bill, perpetuated racist attitudes and, in some cases, reinforced them through stricter work requirements and expanded state control over program rules. Over the next two decades, the cash assistance system actually became “less effective at protecting children from deep poverty — that is, at lifting their incomes above half of the poverty line — and children’s deep poverty rose, particularly among Black and Latinx children” (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).
Oregon is making an effort to reckon with the racial inequities of these social services, even if it must be done within the confines of federal programs. In this legislative session, the passing of House Bill 5202 signified a new investment in the TANF program through an increase of $1 million in state dollars and $25.1 million in federal funds to allow for changes aimed at reducing child poverty and improving outcomes for participating families.
The package includes:
- Funds to increase the TANF resource limit (that is, how much people can have saved in the bank and still be approved for TANF assistance) from $2,500 to $10,000. This allows families to establish a greater financial safety net while qualifying for cash assistance.
- Funds that will allow ODHS Self-Sufficiency Programs to preserve 75 percent of the monthly TANF cash grant for dependent children in cases where an adult in the family is disqualified from the program. This means parent disqualification will have less of a negative impact on their children.
- Support for a clothing benefit that will provide participating families with three seasonal clothing allowances per year.
- Expansion of Oregon’s statewide Family Support and Connections program to serve more families, prioritizing Black, Indigenous, and families of color. FS&C provides preventative services to families at risk of Child Welfare involvement to instead strengthen the family and support effective parenting.
This is definitely a step in the right direction, but improvements to TANF in Oregon – a state that has historically struggled with diversity – are not enough to make social services equitable. Unfortunately, Black children are more likely to live in states with the lowest benefits and with programs that reach the fewest families in need. Nevertheless, I am hopeful Oregon can model a successful and more equitable application of cash assistance that other states can employ.