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Work requirements won’t affect the debt ceiling — but they will stir up racist narratives

It’s time to disrupt these destructive stereotypes and stop trapping workers in a cycle of low-wage jobs with no path to real economic mobility

A job training facility for the Work Incentive (WIN) Program for welfare recipients, Jan. 26, 1971.Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress

As part of the ongoing negotiations around raising the debt ceiling (the federal government’s borrowing limit), Republican lawmakers are calling for steep cuts to government spending — particularly targeting social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Along with deep spending cuts, they’re also proposing adding “work requirements,” which makes working or looking for work a condition to receive benefits.

This means people who are subject to work requirements can lose their benefits if they don’t comply with the rules.

Although it might seem like a racially neutral policy, work requirements have a long and racist history. Underlying this policy is the myth that Black people are lazy and don’t want to work. This narrative, which was essential to perpetuating slavery, continued to shape social policy long after slavery was abolished. As recently as 2018, policymakers framed work requirements as essential to preserving the American work ethic.

Where did work requirements come from?

The idea that people should have to work to receive benefits has been around since the Middle Ages. In the U.S., modern work requirements have roots in racist ideas about what counts as work, who should work and who deserves to be supported when they are unable to work.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “mothers’ pensions” were small cash payments designed to help single mothers — mostly widows — take care of their children. There were no work requirements. In fact, the whole point of these payments was to allow women to stay home to take care of their children. But these payments were overwhelmingly given to White mothers. A 1931 survey found that 96% of participants in the program were White while Black mothers were required to work.

Requiring Black people to work is rooted in slavery. White enslavers consistently portrayed Black people as lazy and unwilling to work even though enslaved people worked almost constantly, which further perpetuated the institution of slavery.

To get the New Deal passed during the Great Depression, a compromise between liberals and conservatives gave states the power to control who received new benefits. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was a cash assistance program that replaced the mothers’ pensions and was designed to help mothers support their children. The program still didn’t have official work requirements; instead, local officials decided who deserved assistance. In southern states, where most Black people still lived, those officials regularly gave Black women lower payments or withheld support altogether.

A federal welfare administrator who traveled to the South to understand why so few Black families were enrolled in ADC discovered an “intense desire not to interfere with local labor conditions.” That worker noted people saw “no reason why the employable Negro mother should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.”

In other words, this new social safety net simply wasn’t available to Black people. They were required to work because the local economy depended on White people benefitting from the enforced low-wage labor of Black people who worked as cooks, laundresses and childcare providers.

In time, states lost the ability to exclude Black people from public assistance based on their own biases. That’s when formal work requirements came into the picture.

Residents waiting their turn at the welfare office in the courthouse in Heard County, Georgia, April 1941.Jack Delano/Library of Congress

How have work requirements evolved?

As Black families migrated north and started to gain access to public assistance programs like ADC and unemployment insurance, local officials relied on racist narratives to institute work requirements.

For instance, in 1961 amid the Great Migration, unsubstantiated rumors said Black families were moving to Newburgh, N.Y. with the sole intention of receiving public assistance. Newburgh was undergoing an economic decline that had nothing to do with the arrival of new Black residents, but City Manager Joseph Mitchell leaned into racist narratives about Black workers to propose a set of welfare rules that required new residents provide evidence that they had job offers. George McKneally, a Newburgh City Council member, stated his support for the measure, saying, “There’s hardly an incentive to a naturally lazy people to work if they can exist without working.”

In the decades since the Newburgh proposal, work requirements and accompanying racist framing have become commonplace. Former President Ronald Reagan, who long sought to restrict access to welfare as California’s governor in the 1960s, repeatedly invoked the infamous “welfare queen” trope in his 1976 presidential campaign and passed strict, punitive work requirements when he became president. By the 1990s, both policy discussion and popular discourse were intertwined with racist narratives and imagery that depicted Black people as the main beneficiaries of the social safety net.

Do work requirements work?

In a word, no. There’s no evidence work requirements help people get and keep good jobs that allow them to support their families. However, there’s plenty of evidence that work requirements harm people and take away needed health care and other support systems.

If work requirements are added to Medicaid through the new debt limit bill, thousands of people could lose access to health insurance. Since 1997, adding work requirements to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (cash welfare) has resulted in millions of people losing benefits. And in states like Wisconsin, where the administration of work requirements has been privatized, work requirements are enriching private companies and trapping low income workers in a cycle of poorly paid jobs that don’t provide either a living wage or the training to achieve real economic mobility.

So why do Republican legislators continue to insist on these provisions? Work requirements are like many aspects of U.S. social policy: They have little to do with reducing poverty or supporting people in need and everything to do with perpetuating racist narratives.

Nomi Sofer specializes in storytelling for social justice and developing and disseminating antiracist narratives. She is the Project Director for Voices of Reentry and the Associate Director of the Narrative Office at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.