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Celebrate Black History Month by Making Policy Changes That Help Black Women Thrive
Our nation’s success depends on all people having the opportunity to thrive. During February, as we honor the contributions and accomplishments of Black people, policymakers should ensure that more Black people, specifically Black people with low incomes, can thrive and live full lives by enacting measures that rectify harm and expand opportunity. In particular, they should redesign the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to center the needs of Black women and families. That change would reduce material and financial hardship and improve child outcomes, better serving families of all races and ethnicities.
The anti-Black racism embedded in TANF’s design weakens the program’s reach and effectiveness, particularly for Black families.
Some 34 percent of Black children aged 5 and under lived in households with pre-tax cash incomes below the federal poverty line in 2021. Yet, Black children are more likely than white children to live in states where TANF cash benefits are the lowest and where TANF reaches the fewest families in poverty.
Many of TANF’s rules reflect a legacy dating back to cash programs of the early 20th century, and many of the program’s assumptions about Black people’s willingness to work and participate in wage labor reflect anti-Black racism dating back to enslavement.
Throughout the history of cash assistance, many policymakers and public figures have used racist justifications and stereotypes to question Black women’s reproductive choices, coerce Black women into working in exploitative conditions, and control, deride, and even punish Black women who receive cash assistance.
TANF’s design perpetuates these attitudes and, in some ways, reinforces them. TANF’s harsh work requirements and arbitrary time limits disproportionally cut off Black families from receiving financial assistance when they are most in need. Sanctions in most states are extreme, taking cash assistance away from the whole family. TANF’s work requirements focus on getting recipients into jobs as quickly as possible, fueling occupational segregation and keeping women — especially Black women — in low-paying jobs in sectors deemed “essential” during the pandemic, such as food service and paid caregiving.
State control over program rules further limits families’ access to TANF benefits. For example, some states restrict access through behavioral requirements such as drug testing parents, and they exert reproductive control through measures such as “family cap” policies that aim to limit the number of children a family has while receiving TANF assistance.
These program features limit Black women’s opportunities and choices when the program instead could focus on creating and expanding them.
Policymakers should use the “Black Women Best” (BWB) framework to redesign TANF to center the needs of Black women and families. BWB developers Janelle Jones, Kendra Bozarth, and Grace Western explain that “if Black women — who, since our nation’s founding, have been among the most excluded and exploited by the rules that structure our society — can one day thrive in the economy, then it must finally be working for everyone.”
Centering Black women’s aspirations and connection to life goals would be a long-needed departure from TANF’s history of perpetuating racism and exclusionary access by design. Such a redesign would enable TANF to reduce material and financial hardship and improve child outcomes, better serving families of all races and ethnicities.
Policymakers could redesign TANF using a BWB framework by:
- Establishing a federal minimum benefit so that no family falls below a certain income level. A federal minimum benefit would protect families of all races by establishing a floor to mitigate the variation among state benefits, but it would especially protect Black families, who are more likely to live in states where cash benefit levels are the lowest.
- Refocusing TANF agencies on helping families address immediate crises and improving long-term well-being. As the nation’s primary cash assistance program for families when they face a crisis or have very low incomes, TANF is better suited than other economic security programs to provide the support that parents need to achieve their goals. TANF should move away from mandatory work programs, which do little to help parents find work that lifts them and their children above the poverty line, and toward voluntary support programs that align with a family’s goals, career aspirations, and needs. Resources that TANF agencies previously used to monitor compliance with mandatory work requirements could instead support families in new and meaningful ways.
- Holding states accountable for improving program participants’ employment opportunities. Shifting from focusing on punishment to focusing on creating opportunity can help parents and families reach their career goals and aspirations.
- Barring behavioral requirements, time limits, and other eligibility exclusions. These provisions demean families by assuming that adults are irresponsible and do not want what is best for their families. Worse, they often take away assistance from families who need it.
- Changing TANF’s funding structure to prioritize cash assistance, address funding inequities between states, and maintain value over time. States have used TANF resources to pay for other things besides cash aid to families; notably, states with high Black populations tend to spend less on basic assistance and redirect these funds elsewhere. Furthermore, the original block grant formula has lost about 40 percent of its value since its creation due to inflation, which makes it harder for states that want to adequately invest in families to do so. Federal policymakers should require states to spend a greater share of TANF resources on basic assistance and establish an equitable formula allocation to encourage states, especially those with lower benefits and higher Black populations, to increase benefits and serve more families.
Black History Month celebrates the many ways in which Black people have contributed to this country, in spite of racism and discrimination. It should re-energize us to think about the added excellence that our nation can achieve if we use policy to dismantle racism and discrimination and instead allow families to direct their own course and thrive.