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Racism in United States Welfare Policy

The complex interplay of race and class in the United States ensures that certain areas of domestic policy are suffused with racial bias, bear the imprint of a more frankly racist past, are prone to political manipulation, and serve as touchstones for galvanizing key elements of a racist consensus. Social welfare policy is one such area.

The 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), commonly know as “welfare reform,” underscored how deeply embedded are racial bias and xenophobia in United States domestic policy. But, of course, it is not racism alone that characterizes welfare reform. Researchers and advocates have carefully explored the profound gender bias of the welfare system as well.1,2 The majority of people now receiving welfare benefits are poor women of color who face the “triple jeopardy” of belonging to a disempowered class, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and a subordinated gender.

As others have cogently argued, welfare policy is also labor policy.3 Indeed, within months of the passage of PRWORA, evidence was already emerging that workfare and Work First programs were depressing wages and displacing low-wage workers. In the boom economy of the mid- to late-1990s, employers recognized that “Everyone has been raising wages to get people… and this [influx of welfare recipients] will make it possible to hold pay steady.”4

Work requirements and time limits that coerce women into the paid labor force are not implemented in a gender- or race-neutral environment, and cannot be expected to be neutral in their impact. Thus, while the surge of former welfare recipients into the low-wage sector of the economy worsens wages and working conditions for the poorest strata of the working class as a whole, some communities are hit harder than others. Communities of color, with traditionally higher unemployment and underemployment rates, higher proportions of very low-wage workers, and lower median incomes are further disadvantaged by PRWORA policies that force women into a labor market in which they have virtually no bargaining power.

There are substantial racial differences among working women. Full-time, year-round Latina workers earned a median annual income of $19,817 in 1998, considerably less than the $23,864 earned by African American women or the $27,304 earned by white women.5 All women are far more likely than white men to earn poverty level wages. But, again, racial differentials are substantial. More than half of Latina workers, 51.8 percent, earn poverty level wages, compared to 40.7 percent of Black women and 29.7 percent of white women. African American women with less than a high school education faced 1996 unemployment rates nearly twice as high as those of white women—20.9 percent vs. 10.8 percent—while 15.9 percent of Hispanic women at this educational level were unemployed. Underemployment rates were even higher.6 Analyzing the labor market conditions facing women receiving welfare benefits, one researcher concluded: “Such high rates of un- and underemployment, which persist in a labor market that has experienced overall unemployment rates below six percent for over two years, suggest that it may be difficult for welfare recipients to meet the work requirements of the new welfare law.”7

Former welfare recipients generally end up holding low-paid, entry-level jobs in the gender ghettos of service, sales, and clerical work. A study of the first two years of welfare reform in New Jersey found that the average hourly wage of those former welfare recipients who were working was only $7.31. More than one-third were holding jobs that paid less than $6.00 per hour.8 A 1997 national survey found that adults who left the welfare system and were employed had a median hourly wage of $6.61.9 This would bring a family just above the official poverty level, but fall far short of a “living wage.” Most former recipients who enter the labor force work at jobs that do not provide them with benefits. Less than one-quarter of these workers was covered by health benefits in one national survey.10

Far too many families end up in worse economic circumstances than they endured while receiving welfare benefits. For example, a study that tracked families who left Wisconsin’s welfare system found that during the first year off welfare, only half of the families had higher income than they had while receiving welfare benefits, even if they had been working while receiving welfare.11 An examination of seven state studies of former welfare recipients found that in only two of the states were families’ average annual earnings above the poverty line.12

Many women have been pushed off welfare but have not found employment. Several studies show that 20 to 40 percent of former recipients find no work.13,14,15 As more and more women reach their two-year and five-year limits in an economy that is far less robust than it was when welfare reform was passed, they will face an even less welcoming labor market.

There is some evidence that racial disadvantage in the labor market is also being played out in terms of the rates at which different racial groups are leaving the rolls. Welfare use is declining rapidly among all races, but white recipients are leaving the welfare rolls at a much more rapid rate than Blacks or Latinos. In New York City, for example, the number of whites receiving welfare benefits declined by 57 percent between 1995 and 1998, while the rate of decline for Blacks was 30 percent and that of Latinos, seven percent. White recipients have led the decline nationally as well.

Some explanatory factors may include: higher average educational levels among white recipients; greater concentrations of recipients of color in job-poor inner cities; and racial discrimination in employment and housing. Susan Gooden’s findings regarding racial discrimination in the provision of information and assistance,16 as well as her findings of racial differentials in employment outcomes among Black and white participants in one state welfare reform program,17 are clearly relevant here. Though the combination of contributing factors is undoubtedly complex, the more rapid transition of white recipients into the labor force is one indicator of the racially disparate impact of welfare reform.


The passage from welfare to work is beset with difficulties. Women are forced into jobs earning poverty-level wages that leave them worse off than they were while receiving welfare benefits. With no benefits, transportation problems, and high childcare costs, they struggle with the complex logistics of caring for their families while clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Other women are sanctioned off the rolls or reach their time limits, but find no place in the paid labor force.

In the current political climate we have been reduced to state by state battles to fight for the options which can be determined by state legislatures either within the federal framework or beyond it. In California, for instance, advocates are organizing to remove the punitive family cap regulations, which attempt to coerce women’s child-bearing choices based on the false perception that they choose to have children to increase their welfare grant.

Unfortunately, the political impulse behind welfare reform, apart from being mean-spirited and socially regressive, is racist and xenophobic. Welfare reform is being implemented in ways that follow well-worn patterns of racial and anti-immigrant discrimination. And, the negative impacts of welfare reform are unequally shared. Left unchallenged, we cannot but expect that this policy will bolster white privilege and more deeply inscribe racial subordination.


1.    Abramowitz, Mimi,  Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present, 1988. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press.

2.    Mink, Gwendolyn,  Welfare’s End, 1998. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

3.    Piven, Frances Fox and Cloward, Richard A., Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 1971. New York: Vintage.

4.    Uchitelle, Louis, “Welfare Recipients Taking Jobs Often Held by the Working Poor,” April 1, 1997. The New York Times.

5.    United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, “Women of Hispanic Origin in the Labor Force,” Facts on Working Women, No. 00-04, April 2000.

6.    Bernstein, Jared, “The Challenge of Moving from Welfare to Work: Depressed Labor Market Awaits Those Leaving the Rolls,” EPI Issue Brief No. 116, March. 1997.

7.    Ibid.

8.    Rangarajan, Anu and Wood, Robert G., How WFNJ Clients are Faring Under Welfare Reform: An Early Look, 1999. Princeton, New Jersey: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

9.    Loprest, Pamela, How Families That Left Welfare Are Doing: A National Picture, 1999. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

10.    Ibid.

11.    United States General Accounting Office. “Welfare Reform: Information on Former Recipients’ Status,” Washington, D.C.: USGAO, 1999b.

12.    Ibid.

13.    Ibid.

14.    Rangarajan and Wood, How Clients are Faring under Welfare Reform, 1999.

15.    Loprest, Pamela, Families That Left Welfare, 1999.

16.    Gooden, Susan T., “All Things Not Being Equal; Differences in Caseworker Support Toward Black and White Welfare Clients,” Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy 4:23-33, 1998.

17.    Gooden, Susan T., “Race and Welfare: Examining Employment Outcomes of White and Black Welfare Recipients,” Journal of Poverty 4, No. 3: 21-41, 2000.


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JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

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