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How US workfare punished minorities and the poor

Kate Belgrave says flawed and punitive US workfare is no model for the UK

Last week: How US workfare failed to lead to ongoing paid employment for many benefit claimants forced into it.

This second part of that article considers the vindictiveness, racism and misogyny that informed a lot of modern welfare “reform” dialogue in the US. America's has been a flawed, punitive system – but remains one that “reforming” governments like our own look to for inspiration as they attack the welfare state.

The concept of workfare has been around for many years in the US, but most people give 1996 as a start-date for the modern destruction of welfare. That was the year that Bill Clinton's election promise to “end welfare as we know it” made law as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). 

Fashioned to target the young, African-American, single mothers Ronald Reagan had, in an vicious, evidence-free campaign against so-called “welfare queens”, assured his voting public were fraudulently collecting benefits and living it up on welfare, the punitive, biased-in-favour-of-marriage PRWORA legislation introduced lifetime time-limits for benefit eligibility, compulsory attendance at unpaid jobs in return for benefits (workfare) and heavy sanctions (full or partial benefit cuts) for non-attenders. It also devolved responsibility for managing (and cutting) welfare rolls to states. 

Federal government provided a block grant to states, which implemented welfare rules, work programmes and sanctions in line with local priorities - or prejudices, in some cases. Several years into Wisconsin's much-touted workfare programme, for example, it emerged that African-American workfare participants were being sanctioned more harshly than white participants. In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP alleged racial discrimination in the Wisconsin programme's application of benefit sanctions in a complaint to the federal office of civil rights.

A study by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future reported that 42% of African-American participants were sanctioned and 45% of Hispanic participants, while the rate was 24% for white participants. The state of Wisconsin department of workforce development was forced to investigate and found that rates of sanction were indeed higher for African-American participants.

That is a cautionary tale to keep in mind here as reformers push their “scroungers” rhetoric. Bias may out. There has been a great deal of debate in the US about the discretionary power that individual case officers have when deciding whether or not to sanction benefit claimants and when deciding which jobs to place workfare workers in.

PRWORA also offered the puritan, misogynist element so beloved of modern-day reformers. To qualify for benefits, for example, unmarried, underage parents had to live with a responsible adult or guardian. PRWORA had an “anti-illegitimacy” bonus – financial rewards for states that reduced out-of-marriage births and abortion rates, and promoted abstinence. It also excluded immigrants who had been in the country for under five years.

PRWORA was signed by Clinton, but engineered by enemy of reason Newt Gingrich and other Republicans like Eugene Clay Shaw, who were emboldened by sweeping mid-term victories. PRWORA established TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) as the main welfare programme for families with dependent children under 18. All states had to put a percentage their welfare populations in work-related activities (like workfare) for about 30 hours a week, enforce sanctions for non-attenders and cut benefits to people who'd reached those new eligibility time limits.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people on welfare dropped dramatically as TANF was rolled out. Some may have found jobs and enough hours at them to make up their low pay. Others simply disappeared – into the grey economy, or the growing band of poor and homeless as we saw last time in New York. Let's hear from John Krinsky again on the US welfare reform experiment:

“Welfare rolls dropped, but part of what happened was the new criteria and tougher enforcement. They (welfare offices) said: we're going to take a month to assess you and in that time, we're going to do whatever investigation we need to do. We're also going to make you show up to job search activity. We're not going to pay you anything, but you have to document [the search activity]. What if you have a medical appointment? You have to miss a day of job search and [the welfare office] asks for a doctor's note, but you may not speak a lot of English [to ask], or you don't come in at the appointed time, because your family is sick. When people are poor, they have no backup services. So – welfare drops you and you have to apply again. You have to go through another month. You do a bit of something else for cash and they find out that you're doing that and so you're not eligible for welfare.... The idea is to make you to give up.”

Indeed it is. The aim of modern welfare reform is to slash welfare rolls, as anyone battling assessment with Atos will tell you. Neither need, nor entitlement, bulk large in the minds of welfare-to-work architects.

Kate Belgrave blogs on the experience of public service users facing cuts.

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