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  • Alex Horn

Who Gets Welfare in the United States?

When Joe Biden was sworn in as President, one of his priorities was the passage of the American Rescue Plan—and the $1.9 trillion social spending package would be enacted less than two months after his inauguration. Included in this bill was the expanded Child Tax Credit, which gave working and middle-class households $3,000 per child annually, compared to just $2,000 per child previously. However, the most critical aspect of the expanded credit was its expansion to low-income households. Previously, households making less than $2,500 were ineligible, and households making too little to owe income tax received partial benefits. There were 27 million children whose families received either zero or partial benefits for making too little, but the expanded Child Tax Credit addressed this and nearly halved the child poverty rate. Unfortunately, the expanded tax credit was allowed to expire after just a year, and while there were efforts to extend it in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, just one Senator voted for its reinstatement.

For welfare and social spending, this has become an oft-told story in American history. The United States has always had a very strong welfare system, just not necessarily for those who might need it. Since its inception, the federal government has always been heavily involved in the economy—subsidizing some industries but not others, buying from some companies but not others—but this role underwent a huge transformation in the 1930s. In response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a wide range of jobs and welfare programs, but these programs were temporary and forced people to quickly find another job. As FDR said, he did not want these programs to “become a habit with the nation.” Many of these programs ended by the end of the decade, though one lasted far beyond the Great Depression—Social Security. Social Security is one of the largest entitlement programs in this nation's history, but passed with Social Security is the lesser-known Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). AFDC provided direct cash benefits to poor single parents and orphans, and the program led to improved child and maternal health, better performance in school, and increased enrollment in college.

As these programs established in the New Deal were the first welfare programs directed towards poor people, how these programs were implemented would define how American welfare programs operate. The federal government largely left these programs up to the states for implementation, and this already created stark disparities. In New Deal jobs programs, Black women were consistently paid less and given more physically demanding work. Black women often did not receive Social Security benefits because federal legislation explicitly made exceptions for agricultural and domestic workers—primarily Black people. And since implementation was up to the states, they were largely free to deny AFDC benefits to Black women, whether indirectly or explicitly.

Due to the work of the Civil Rights movement, Black women won the right to enroll in AFDC and Social Security, and so it was after this point that the work to villainize welfare—especially its recipients—took off. Harmful stereotypes of Black people as lazy and unwilling to work had been manufactured throughout slavery and Jim Crow. As soon as Black women won the right to enroll in these programs, the media and politicians began to push narratives of Black people— especially Black women—using welfare solely for “fraud”, claiming they were “lazy”. Then, in the late ‘70s, the trope of the “welfare queen” was invented to solidify this stereotype. This trope was able to reinvent how welfare was perceived in American society, portraying all welfare recipients as abusing the welfare system to get rich without work. The campaign was led by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) in his 1976 campaign for President. Reagan created an exaggerated caricature of a Black woman who received AFDC benefits and claimed she was able to become wealthy from AFDC payments alone. The goal was to instill the idea that people on welfare needed to “escape the spider’s web of dependency”, and it was widely successful. While Reagan wasn't elected in 1976, he won four years later in a landslide, and during his tenure, 90% of those on AFDC either completely lost benefits or had their benefits significantly reduced.

In the end, the final death blow to AFDC wouldn’t come until the Presidency changed parties. In 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton (D-AR) ran for President promising to “end welfare as we know it”, and he did. In 1996 Clinton completely abolished AFDC in favor of a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF is a completely stripped-down version of AFDC—benefits are temporary and recipients must find work or lose benefits. Today, less than a quarter of the number of people are enrolled as were on AFDC, and they receive significantly less in benefits. This reduction is not due to any betterment of the conditions of poor people, as the real income has only remained constant for the bottom 20%. Clinton similarly relied on racism and misogyny to abolish AFDC, he even had two former “welfare queens” at the bill signing.

This all begs the question: what gets to be called welfare? A survey from the right-wing Cato Institute found that just 19% of people believe that “more welfare spending” will reduce poverty, but when asked about specific programs just 25% of people support cutting benefits. However, only welfare to poor people—especially poor Black women—is villainized. The federal government spends $212 billion annually on what is commonly thought of as welfare. This might seem like a lot, but the federal government spends $1.3 trillion on tax credits, with a majority of this spending directly going to the top 20%, and nearly a quarter going to the top 1%. So-called fiscal conservatives use racist and misogynist tropes to fearmonger about the government creating “dependency” among the poor, but the only group that has become dependent on the government are the wealthiest.


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