Contextualizing Racial Disparities
in Welfare Reform
Welfare in the United States was dramatically reformed in 1996 in ways that I would argue are highly racialized but that Europe has yet to fully emulate.1 Yet, American welfare reform’s racial subtext remains understudied by mainstream policy analysis. And that is the focus of this chapter: given the way it is most normally conducted these days, conventional public policy research is incapable of addressing the major political questions, such as what is the racial character of welfare reform. Only when we place welfare reform in historical and cultural context so as to highlight in particular the role of discourse can we begin to see just how racialized welfare reform really is.
Welfare reform was indeed dramatic. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 abolished the longstanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program originally enacted as part of the Social Security Act of 1935 and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. Many procedural safeguards to accessing assistance were repealed. The TANF program has emphasized time limits and work requirements and allowed states to set stricter options than specified in the federal law. It has given states greater latitude to use sanctions to reduce benefits and terminate families from assistance. It has given birth to a “work first” welfare reform regime that puts in place a series of “get-tough” policies designed to reduce the problem of “welfare dependency.”2 Welfare has been reformed to have as its main purpose the promotion of self-sufficiency by enforcing work and family values among the poor.
1. On the critical role of race in distinctively shaping the welfare state in the United States compared with Europe, see Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004).
2. Thomas Gais and R. Kent Weaver, State Policy Choices Under Welfare Reform, Welfare Reform & Beyond: Brief No. #21 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, April 2002).