Race, Welfare Reform, and Nonprofit Organizations

Article excerpt

This article presents research on the impact of welfare reform on 90 nonprofit organizations in Southeast Michigan. Utilizing a refined survey instrument, in-depth interviews and focus groups with agency executives and staff, and the analysis of agency documents, it assesses how the racial characteristics of agencies' client populations affected the organizational consequences of welfare reform. The study confirmed that welfare reform has affected the ability of nonprofit organizations to meet the increased expectations generated by recent legislation. These effects have been particularly pronounced among agencies serving a high proportion of racial minority clients.


For many years, race has played a significant role in the development of various U.S. public policies, especially those related to public assistance (Brown, 1999; Lieberman, 1998; Thompson, 1998). Federal and state welfare policies have directly or indirectly discriminated against racial minorities, particularly African Americans, from the provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935 to the implementation of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. Even during eras of social reform, such as the 1960s, the focus on race produced both discriminatory policies and substantial white backlash, which, in turn, inhibited the creation of progressive policies for the working poor (Quadagno, 1996).

Since the 1960s, social scientists have debated the relative significance of race or class factors in determining the socioeconomic status of racial minorities in the U.S. including their disproportionate representation on the welfare rolls (Massey and Denton, 1993; Wilson, 1996). At the same time, significant alterations in welfare policies have had a dramatic and disproportionate impact on people of color. These include the adoption of work requirements--from the 1967 Social Security Amendments to the welfare reforms of 1996--and the contraction or elimination of a broad range of supportive services (Schiele, 1998; Abramovitz, 1998). Bobo and Smith (1998) characterize these trends as a new "laissez faire" racism in the nation's welfare policies based on the perceived inferiority of African American individuals and culture.

The association of welfare status with racial minorities is perpetuated by stereotypical portrayals in the media and the use of racial codes for political purposes (Schiele, 1998; Edsall, 1991). The persistent image of the so-called "welfare queen," despite ample contradictory scholarship, further reduces public support for welfare programs (Clawson and Trice, 2000; Gilliam, 1999; Zucchino, 1997). Ironically, the effects of recent welfare reforms appear to be turning some of these myths into reality as, for the first time, racial minorities begin to comprise the majority of welfare recipients in certain regions (Bischoff and Reisch, 2000). At the same time, the decline in the size of the welfare rolls since 1996 has created more sympathetic attitudes towards those who receive public assistance (DeParle, 1998).

Although persons of color, particularly African Americans, have historically comprised a disproportionately high percentage of the AFDC/TANF population, this difference has become even more pronounced since the mid-1990s. National statistics reveal that the proportion of white recipients dropped from 37.4% in 1994 to 30.5% in 1999, while, during the same period, African Americans went from 36.4% to 38% of the welfare population and the proportion of Latinos increased from 19.9% to 24.5% (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). In addition, welfare caseloads are becoming increasingly concentrated in urban counties, with 10 counties comprising 33% of the entire nation's welfare population (Allen and Kirby, 2000).

There is also ample evidence that welfare reform has had a major impact on communities of color, especially the African American community, and the organizations that provide services to them. …