Black Americans have been excluded from receiving benefits many times since the United States started offering social services decades ago.
Black Americans have been excluded from receiving benefits many times since the United States started offering social services decades ago. When the nation’s first federal health care program was created by the Freedman’s Bureau, Black Americans affected by a post-Civil War smallpox outbreak were largely ignored and given minimal assistance, which caused high mortality rates. In the 1930s, New Deal antipoverty efforts sought to bring relief to Americans during and after the Great Depression, but southern states had enough congressional power to ensure that Black people were excluded from benefits like Social Security, minimum wage, and the G.I. Bill through selective work restrictions. While many laws that fueled more explicit racial discrimination were repealed after the civil rights movement and other welfare rights efforts, current rules and processes often still perpetuate racial bias. How can we address #INEQUALITY in social service programs? Click To Tweet
A more recent example is the social welfare reform of the 1990s. During this time, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program was established as a block grant to replace the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and states were given more discretion to decide who receives benefits and how funds are spent. Cash assistance was no longer an entitlement available to anyone who met eligibility requirements. With no standard federal definition for what makes a family “needy,” states had broad freedom to choose eligibility criteria and income thresholds, mandate work requirements, and impose time limits for how long families can receive assistance. One study examined the level of inequality in the provision of safety-net programs across states from 1994 through 2014, measuring “generosity of benefits and inclusiveness of receipt.” The authors found that the level of inequality in how generous or inclusive a state’s program was were highest in TANF-related programs and lowest in food assistance and health insurance, as the latter two programs have more oversight from the federal government.
TANF policies for eligibility requirements and sanctions are harsher in states with a larger Black population.
More than 25 years after welfare reform, states with the smallest maximum TANF monthly benefit are concentrated in the Southern U.S., and those with the highest are found in states in the Northeast. According to the Urban Institute, TANF policies for eligibility requirements and sanctions are harsher in states with a larger Black population, and the maximum benefits provided are lower with shorter time limits. For instance, as of July 2019, the highest amount for a single-parent family of three, $1,066 per month, is found in the more homogenous state of New Hampshire, where 93 percent of the population is white and less than 2 percent is Black. Comparatively, Mississippi, has a population that is 59 percent white and 38 percent Black, and offers a maximum benefit of just $170 per month. A Midwestern state like Ohio, falls in between with a maximum benefit of $497 for a population that is 81 percent white and 13 percent Black.
Moving forward, we can help to prevent this inequality by monitoring policy outcomes and practices at the federal, state and local levels more closely using a racial equity lens
While the welfare reform of the ‘90s did not explicitly discriminate based on race, public perception of welfare became more negative as recipients became more diverse. This saw new stereotypes of Black beneficiaries like the infamous “welfare queen” emerge. In the case of TANF, state discretion aided the reinforcement of these racial biases and resulted in inequal provision of social benefits across the country.
Moving forward, we can help to prevent this inequality by monitoring policy outcomes and practices at the federal, state and local levels more closely using a racial equity lens. Community Solutions is committed to doing so. A new proposal to convert Medicaid into a block grant, much like TANF policies, would exclude certain populations and cause increased inaccessibility. Given the results of TANF, there is the danger that any move to give more “flexibility” to states’ could deepen racial disparities and increase geographic variations in benefits. It’s important not to ignore the truth that there is an interplay of historical, economic and social factors in racial bias that have been built into the structure of the social welfare system. Leaders at all levels of government must recognize this, use this knowledge to assess current policies and inform future decisions in service delivery to ensure everyone has equal access to the social safety net.
 New York Times Magazine, “Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer has everything to do with race.”14 August 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/universal-health-care-racism.html
 Bruch, S. K., Meyers, M. K., Gornick, J. C. “The Consequences of Decentralization: Inequality in Safety Net Provision in the Post-Welfare Reform Era.” Social Service Review, March, 2018. https://stonecenter.gc.cuny.edu/files/2018/03/gornick-the-consequences-of-decentralization-inequality-in-safety-net-provision-in-the-post-welfare-reform-era-2019.pdf.
 Falk, G. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): Eligibility and Benefit Amounts in State TANF Cash Assistance Programs. (R43634). Congressional Research Service, 2014. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43634.pdf.
 Hahn H., et al, “Why Does Cash Welfare depend on Where You Live?” Urban Institute, June, 2017. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/why-does-cash-welfare-depend-where-you-live
 Burnside, A. and I. Floyd, “More States Raising TANF Benefits to Boost Families’ Economic Security” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December, 2019. https://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/tanf-cash-benefits-have-fallen-by-more-than-20-percent-in-most-states
 State population data is compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau.
 Anthes, L. “New Medicaid block grant waiver: Risk disguised as flexibility.” The Center for Community Solutions, February 2020. https://www.communitysolutions.com/new-medicaid-block-grant-waiver-risk-disguised-flexibility/