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"Fighting Welfare Racism,"

by Noel Cazanave & Kenneth J. Neubeck March/April 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

The protests led by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union at the Republican National Convention last summer dramatized the urgent need for progressives to force the issue of economic justice onto the national agenda. To be successful, movements for economic justice must, like the KWRU, confront the problem of welfare racism.

Welfare racism is the organization of racialized public assistance attitudes, policy making and administrative practices. Welfare racism hurts poor people in general, not just those of color. This fact is obvious from an examination of its role in the abolition of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

Playing the Welfare “Race Card”

Five years ago, President Bill Clinton kept his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” by signing legislation that abolished AFDC. In doing so, the new Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 ended the federally-guaranteed entitlement to means-tested public assistance for impoverished families.

President Clinton and his advisors apparently thought that significant political gain would follow his welfare reform campaign promise. They had ample reason to think that. Prior to passage of the PRWORA, politicians routinely linked “welfare” with “race.” They often employed code terms like “welfare chiselers” and “welfare queens” that thinly camouflaged overt racism. Clinton and other politicians were able to successfully play the welfare “race card” by exploiting popular welfare racist attitudes that were well documented by polling and other data. Those data revealed a strong tendency for many European Americans to hold racist stereotypes about welfare recipients.

At the time of enactment of the federal welfare reform legislation there was a great deal of welfare racist sentiment for politicians to exploit. Many European Americans erroneously believed that most people on welfare were black, when in fact African Americans and whites had been about equally represented on the welfare rolls for many years. When asked to directly compare themselves with African Americans, fully three-fourths of white respondents to a National Opinion Research Center survey rated African Americans as less likely than whites to prefer to be self-supporting. Another survey found that most of those polled, the vast majority of whom were white, thought that lack of effort was to blame for people being on welfare and that most welfare recipients did not really want to work. These beliefs were most likely to be found among the nearly half of the poll respondents who believed that most people on welfare were black.

Consistent with such racist stereotypes and sentiments, a driving force behind enactment of the federal welfare reform bill was the desire to control the reproductive behavior of black women and the geographic movement of brown people. An examination of the evolution of the text of various versions of that bill reveals that its highly racialized procreation- and immigration-focused population control measures were justified through the deployment of overlapping racist, sexist and class-elitist images of mothers reliant on public assistance.

Not surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that the consequences of that legislation have been especially devastating for people of color. American University political science professor Joe Soss found welfare reform sanctions to be particularly harsh in states with large numbers of African-American or Latino/a residents. An article in The Chicago Reporter revealed that in Illinois, while whites are likely to leave the welfare rolls because job earnings render them ineligible, African Americans are more likely to be sanctioned off the rolls. In New York, Wisconsin and California, Latino/a and Asian immigrants have filed federal civil rights complaints, citing language discrimination by local welfare agencies and denial of services and cash assistance. Finally, a survey of employment service providers in 45 states by the National Partnership for Women and Families discovered widespread employer discrimination against welfare recipients on the basis of race and ethnicity. With the erosion of federal oversight over state and local welfare programs, there has been a return to the state’s rights era welfare racism of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Beyond Denial

Unfortunately, the typical European-American response to racism is denial. Even among white progressives, the dominant Left political ideology is predicated on what could be described as a “Close your eyes and wait for the revolution” type of wishful thinking. The logic behind this ideology is that if the working class can just, somehow, move beyond the divisiveness of “race,” it could be united in a broad-based movement for economic justice.

Effective economic justice movements require much more than simply closing one’s eyes or covering them with ideological blinders and pretending that systemic racism doesn’t exist. Racism-neutrality cannot bridge the racial divide in the United States. It is most improbable that the “race-neutral programs” sociologist William J. Wilson and others advocate would, indeed, be race-neutral in a society where virtually every significant social structure is highly racialized. Even if “race-neutral programs” were possible, the irony is that white racism would likely be the major obstacle to their implementation. It is time for progressives to open their eyes wide and more closely examine public policy responses to racism.

Public Policy Responses to Racism

Public assistance and other poverty-focused policies and programs may be placed along a conceptual continuum based on their response to systemic white racism.

Racism-driven policies and programs, like recent punitive welfare reform initiatives, are significantly influenced by racist sentiments, attitudes and/or goals. Racism-blind policies and programs do nothing to challenge welfare racism. Indeed, by further institutionalizing the denial of racism, they reinforce it. Racism-cognizant policies and programs acknowledge racism as a cause of poverty and punitive welfare policies, but offer little if anything to specifically challenge that racism. Racism-sensitive safeguards, like the inclusion of strong preventive anti-discrimination provisions as part of public assistance legislation, can challenge welfare racism. Finally, Racism-targeted interventions are needed to address the racism-specific causes of poverty and to challenge existing racialized poverty policy when there are no internal racism-sensitive safeguards in place or functioning effectively. Two examples of racism-targeted interventions are citizen groups’ monitoring of the media’s racial portrayal of the poor and the enactment of laws to better monitor and prosecute racial discrimination in the implementation of existing welfare policies.

Challenges to welfare racism cannot be racism-blind. Racism-cognizance is merely a start. Effective challenges to welfare racism must be either racism-sensitive or racism-targeted.

Strategies and Tactics for Fighting Welfare Racism

There are four major overlapping anti-welfare racism strategies: education, research and monitoring; legal remedies; legislative policy action; and social protest and grassroots organization.

Initiatives against welfare racism should strive to inform both the general public and potential activists of the overall impact of welfare racism on the nation’s poor. Central to that educational process are information disseminating tactics that challenge the highly racialized ideologies about poverty and racist images of poor women of color. Of course, before information or knowledge can be disseminated, it must be gathered. Research activities of various types are needed to collect information on welfare racist attitudes, policies and practices that can serve as the basis for educational, legal, legislative policy and social protest challenges.

Racism-sensitive monitoring safeguards should be included in all future public assistance legislation. Appropriate government agencies should also take racism-targeted actions to insure that current public assistance policies do not violate existing laws against racial discrimination. To this end, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ( has released anti-discrimination guidelines (Technical Assistance for Caseworkers on Civil Rights Laws and Welfare Reform) which include specific examples of forbidden welfare racist policies and practices that can be made available to organizations concerned about welfare rights. The Grass Roots Innovative Policy Program has placed on its website ( a document called “Putting Welfare Reform to the Test: A Guide to Uncovering Bias and Unfair Treatment in Local Welfare Programs.” That guide provides the information needed to document welfare racist practices. Anti-discrimination testers should be used in welfare offices to insure that these guidelines are followed.

Legal challenges to welfare racism are often inextricably intertwined with educational, legislative policy and social protest remedies. For example, social-science research and militant welfare rights protests supported lawsuits and legal briefs prepared for administrative hearings that successfully challenged many of the most punitive public assistance provisions of the 1960s. Existing civil rights laws should be utilized to challenge welfare racist practices through administrative hearings and in the courts.

For the poor in particular, influencing electoral politics and ultimately public policy legislation often requires using social protest, which may be the only resource available to them. Social protest should be targeted at news organizations that regularly promote racist stereotypes of welfare recipients. These tactics could include: demonstrations at and boycotts of local newspapers, televison and radio stations; community forums, teach-ins and speak-outs that focus on media bias; and well-publicized complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. Protests can also be directed at politicians who play the welfare “race card” for political gain. Through national organizations like the National Welfare Rights Union (www. and through the grassroots-level actions of organizations like the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union (, the political value of welfare racism can be diminished in direct proportion to its increased political costs.

Now is the Time to Fight!

The time to fight welfare racism is long overdue. The public policy discourse has already begun in anticipation of the 2002 expiration of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

With PRWORA’s expiration, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which receives its authorization from that bill, will also end. Consequently, politicians must decide whether to abolish, renew or replace TANF. We agree with the Women’s Committee of 100, a distinguished group which describes its members as “feminist academics, professionals, and activists,” that for poor people who require government aid the best option is replacing TANF. Replacement of TANF is also the best option as part of a serious challenge to welfare racism.

An adequate guaranteed annual family income — combined with racism-sensitive monitoring safeguards and appropriate racism-targeted legal and legislative policy interventions — could offer the single best remedy to most forms of welfare policy and welfare practices racism.

Welfare racism has often manifested itself as discrimination in the determination of who is eligible to receive benefits and the level of benefits received. With the establishment of a guaranteed annual income, much of the discretion conducive to both types of discrimination could be removed by streamlining the eligibility determination procedure (e.g., to a simple affidavit of income and need) and by instituting simple and well-known criteria for levels of aid for recipients throughout the nation. Such a measure, however, will not eliminate the racist attitudes that often drive poverty policy-making and program implementation.

As the National Welfare Rights Organization was well aware when it demanded a guaranteed minimum income during the Poor People’s Campaign of the late 1960s, the income maintenance component of such a remedy is unlikely to happen without effective challenges to the widespread racist attitudes toward the poor and to anti-poverty programs generated by the state, the media and other highly racialized institutions of this society. In the meantime, while the poor must depend on public assistance, welfare racist attitudes, policies and practices should be confronted through appropriate racism-sensitive safeguards and racism-targeted interventions. By combating welfare racism, we can remove a major roadblock from the path to economic justice for all.

Noel Cazanave Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.
Kenneth J. Neubeck Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.

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