CW: To highlight the problematic narratives surrounding safety net programs, this piece quotes racist statements opponents of these programs have made.

Safety net programs, sometimes called “welfare,” are programs meant to meet the basic needs for families who fall on hard times. Programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, unemployment insurance (UI) and child care assistance are meant to ensure Georgians with little to no income have access to health care, can put food on the table and can access employment training opportunities. Historically, however, policymakers at nearly all levels have erected program barriers to weaken their effects. In many cases, these obstacles can be traced directly to racist narratives around safety net programs.

Welfare has historically referred to cash assistance provided to workers, the elderly and families living in poverty. However, the word has since been attributed to a broad range of income-based programs that serve people living in or near poverty. America has very strong views about the terms “welfare” and “safety net” that stem from a long history of racism.

We know language can shape whether the public supports a human services program. For example, a January survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 32 percent of adults support reduced spending for “welfare programs” but only 12 percent support reduced spending for “Medicaid.” Medicaid and other specific programs are popular, but the umbrella term for them is burdened by negative connotations. In order to protect and expand safety net programs so that they help all Georgians succeed, we must understand the history behind these economic security programs and how we talk about them.

Racism Has Influenced Narratives, Federal Policy Around the Safety Net

Racism is deeply rooted in how people perceive safety net programs and their recipients. This racism dates back all the way to the formation of the Southern strategy, an electoral strategy to attract white voters by appealing to people who held racist views against Black people.

Former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used the Southern strategy to directly attack Black Americans using public assistance, and further perpetuated racial stereotypes. President Reagan’s most-used argument, that America needed to start evaluating who deserved to receive benefits from safety net programs, was influenced by the trope of the “welfare queen.”

This derogatory term was used to refer to mostly Black single women who allegedly misused or collected excessive payments through fraud, child endangerment or manipulation. It stems from the infamous story of Linda Taylor, the original “welfare queen.” Taylor was charged with committing $8,000 in fraud and having various aliases, and she was ultimately convicted and sentenced.

White supremacists used this story to incite uproar against the Black community and push for welfare restrictions that would specifically target Black Americans living in poverty. This trope added to the anti-poor and anti-Black fire of America that was already burning out of control.

But Linda Taylor was an anomaly. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the labor force participation rate of Black mothers is 78 percent, surpassing that of mothers of other races, whose participation rates are at 66 percent.

Although the term “welfare queen” has faced some criticism, the idea of rampant welfare fraud remains. In reality,  fraud steadily decreased from about four cents on the dollar in 1993 to one cent by 2006.

This racist idea has allowed for other stereotypes to surface, such as the “lazy African American man.” Now, many Americans automatically pair welfare with the face of a fraudulent Black single mother or a lazy Black man. These inaccurate stereotypes have led to restrictive, racist barriers meant to keep people from receiving economic aid.

As the narrative changed, so did the policies. For example, former President Bill Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it,” claiming that “we all know that the typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago.” He was, of course, appealing to the idea that “welfare queens” and “lazy Black men” were taking advantage of the system and needed to be weeded out. This rhetoric allowed for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program to be eradicated in 1996 and then transformed into TANF, which gave states the power to determine eligibility requirements and benefit levels that paved the way for new restrictions.

Narratives continue to shape federal policy, such as when former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan emphasized President Donald Trump’s push for work requirements because inner-city residents are “not even thinking about working or learning the value of the culture of work,” and “a lot of poor people are born lazy.” This framing cues up various destructive racial stereotypes mostly towards Black Americans and creates a biased, untrue dialogue on who are the deserving poor and who are the “welfare queens.”

Current Effects of a Racist Narrative in Georgia 

Racist narratives surrounding the safety net have also influenced the conversation and policy in Georgia. In spite of strong advocates throughout the state dedicated to reducing poverty and providing food security, such as Faith in Public Life, the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, Step up Savannah, the Latin American Association and many others, Georgia lawmakers have created strict requirements that bar many families from access. Racism plays a role in these obstacles—there is evidence that states with more Black children are less likely to provide adequate cash assistance, for example.

We see those effects in Georgia’s TANF program. Georgia provides meager levels of cash assistance that have remained unchanged since 1996, $280 per month for a family of three. Meanwhile, TANF funds are used to plug holes in the budget and millions of dollars in unobligated TANF reserves go unused, even at a time where, due to the economic downturn spurred by COVID-19, families are in extreme need of more assistance. But racist rhetoric has led the way to racist laws. For example, Georgia is one of only 13 states that still uses a TANF family cap, a rule that bars women receiving TANF from collecting additional benefits for a child born while she was already receiving cash assistance. This rule was devised to disincentivize women who receive assistance from having children. In other words, this barrier was erected because lawmakers believed in the “welfare queen” trope.

Work requirements stemming from rhetoric around who deserves financial support have also been used to bar Black Georgians from enrolling in safety net programs. During Clinton’s welfare reform efforts, work requirements for TANF were created to ensure the recipient is working within 24 months of receiving assistance. This incentivized states to create harsher requirements throughout the years to fulfill their work participation rates and further push people out of the programs. Most recently, the Division of Family and Children Services in Georgia began rolling out a statewide work requirement for those receiving food stamps, so that people without documented disability must work to receive support. But Black Georgians are more likely to live in areas with few quality jobs and may face discrimination in the hiring process, an additional burden to accessing aid.

Dialogue of the “Undeserving” and “Deserving Poor” is Ever Evolving 

There should not be an argument about who deserves to receive support when they are in need of it. Unfortunately, this debate is one of the biggest issues social aid has faced since its implementation.

When people speak of the “deserving poor,” they are referring to those who cannot be blamed for their poverty; their impoverishment is not due to individual behavioral or character flaws, but rather to structural or macro forces well outside of an individual’s control. The “undeserving poor” refers to the opposite, those who some say can be blamed and are experiencing poverty as a result of their actions.

Notably, although corporations and other groups profit from receiving billions of dollars in government aid, the argument about who deserves government support rarely centers on special interests. In fact, aid to the wealthy and corporations, primarily through tax credits and massive financial bailouts, do not get the criticism that aid to needy families gets. Instead, the debate has revolved around individuals—and the arguments have often been racialized, most notably in how Black women have been portrayed as undeserving due to the inaccurate “welfare queen” trope propagated in the 1980s that continues today.

But the idea of who is deserving and who is not has changed over the years. New York University Historian Linda Gordon found in 1935 that single moms living in poverty and their children were one of the least controversial groups to give aid to, while the elderly were one of the most controversial groups. This narrative stemmed from the idea that support for older Americans could let adult children off the hook by shifting the burden of care to the federal government.

It was President Reagan who began to change perceptions of who was “deserving” in the same speech that popularized the term “social safety net.” The elderly and veterans were at the top of the list of the “deserving,” and he promised not to cut programs that affected these groups, such as veteran pensions and Medicare. However, he elevated suspicions of means-tested programs that required people to prove they were living in poverty, such as food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), Medicaid and cash assistance. He targeted those programs for cuts.

This division is still prevalent today, but President Reagan’s ability to change people’s perceptions about who is deserving while also dividing the system consequently proves that we can change the rhetoric to show that everyone in need of public assistance deserves support. The definition of the “deserving poor” gives credence to the idea that poverty is a result of society’s structure, even though the “undeserving poor” theory implies that poverty is a choice. The latter can be refuted by the former. Society’s structure—including the influence of racism and racist policies—inherently erects barriers to success for some. For example, Black Americans have the second-lowest household incomes, just above those of Indigenous people. Further, Black and Latinx families have a mean income of $38,500, while white families made $123,000. The disparity is extremely large considering the labor force participation rates of Black mothers is higher than that of white mothers. Systemic issues such as racism in hiring create these disparities that drive Black families into poverty—and thus, the idea that some people “deserve” access to safety net programs and others do not is false.

Conclusion

There are dangerous stereotypes looming over economic aid programs, limiting any progress or growth within the system. The media, powerful political leaders and the general public within our own state have contributed heavily to this rhetoric and have succeeded in transforming these safety net programs to further oppress Black Georgians. We see this pattern through the continuance of the family cap, racially targeted work requirements and other eligibility requirements such as the compliance with child support enforcement. These requirements that target Black and Brown Georgians stem from racist narratives that have permeated our society throughout several decades.  We must use the same energy to change the conversation in order to protect and defend safety net programs.

Every single person living in this country, no matter their race or ability, deserves freedom to prosper. By creating a narrative that some people do not deserve safety net programs and then applying that narrative specifically to Black and Brown Georgians, we are restricting people’s freedom to create opportunity for themselves. We must dispel the idea that there are people who defraud safety net programs, and especially the notion that most of these people are of the same race that is also being systematically oppressed in this country. Once we do, we can better support the social safety net to reduce poverty and give everyone the opportunity to thrive.

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