Economic Justice will Require Reparations and Anti-Racist Public Programs

By the CLASP Income & Work Supports Team

5 min read.

The Income & Work Supports team at CLASP works to advance public benefits justice, and Black History Month has us thinking about the history of economic injustice in this country. The economic injustices caused by slavery, segregation, mass incarceration, and continued racism profoundly affect Black families today. Reminder: the time in America’s history without slavery or legalized segregation is relatively short.

To truly achieve racial economic justice, we need to be honest about the root causes and do the work: first, a comprehensive reparations strategy that accounts for the economic potential that has been stolen from Black Americans. We also need an anti-racist system of public benefits that truly cares for all people when they experience financial emergencies and supports long-lasting economic security. Just as anti-poverty efforts aim to end or remake structures, systems, and institutions that help create and sustain poverty, anti-poverty efforts that are also anti-racist aim to remake those structures, systems, and institutions that contribute to poverty and racial injustices alike. Read on to better understand how programs have racist foundations and inequitable impact, and what can be done to reverse that legacy.

Stereotypes and false narratives, in particular about Black women, have been used to justify forced labor, bolster white supremacy, and encourage public support of substantial cuts to public benefits programs. Similar false narratives have been wrongly used to justify the exclusion of other populations, including formerly incarcerated people, immigrants, and students. We need to see policy decisions on a federal level that remove exclusions and diversionary methods which discourage people from applying to public benefits.

For immigrants, accessing public benefits can be particularly fraught. Federal restrictions and fear of immigration complications mean that Black immigrants face additional hurdles despite their high rates of participation in the labor force. Historical context shows that anti-poverty policy in America is intertwined with anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and other forms of racism.


The United States’s first housing programs excluded most Black people from federally-backed loans that made homeownership more affordable, which is a key reason why the racial wealth and homeownership gaps are so wide today. These programs also created segregated public housing. Black people are 30 percent less likely to be able to afford a home than white people, relegating over half of Black people to the rental market. One-third of Black renters spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent.

Racial disparities in homeownership rates and housing insecurity are born from decades of the federal and local governments failing to invest in Black homes and neighborhoods, or, in the worst cases, actively sabotaging or demolishing them. As the Black Panthers wrote: “[…] if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing & the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.”

We can’t keep depending on the private rental market to supply enough affordable housing. In fiscal year 2025 appropriations, Congress must prioritize a reinvestment in public housing and begin to build a federal infrastructure to support social housing.

Cash Assistance and Tax Credits

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides monthly cash assistance to families with very low incomes. TANF can help parents afford essentials like food and diapers. But many of the program’s eligibility requirements are rooted in racist stereotypes. TANF work requirements are rooted in paternalistic, anti-Black stereotypes about people living in poverty needing to be forced to work. State and federal lawmakers should remove the program’s work requirements to better promote access and equity. The origins of work requirements hark back to slavery and the white backlash to Reconstruction. It is thus unsurprising that research shows that Black TANF participants are more likely to be sanctioned than white participants. The size of TANF monthly benefits vary on a state-by-state basis, and Black children are more likely to live in the states that provide the lowest benefits. In all states, TANF benefits are not enough to meet a family’s monthly expenses.

Nineteen million kids don’t get the full Child Tax Credit (CTC) because their parents earn too little. Due to factors like the wage gap and job discrimination, Black children are more likely to be among those 19 million children. Congress must fix this inequity by making the CTC fully refundable. A fully inclusive and equitable CTCt that is available to families with little to no earnings would reduce child poverty and promote race equity. CLASP will continue advocating for expansions to the CTC to make it more inclusive.

Health Care

Medicaid is a vital program for more than 80 million people. This is especially true for the 60% of Black children insured by Medicaid. Without Medicaid, millions of children – disproportionately children of color – wouldn’t have access to affordable health care, well-child visits, routine immunizations, and other wellness needs. Medicaid is absolutely essential to children’s well-being in America. But it’s also a program often fraught with administrative burdens, cumbersome paperwork, and judgment. Many of these obstacles to enrollment are rooted in systemic racism that has been embedded in Medicaid throughout the program’s history.

Progress is being made, but there’s still work to do. Ultimately, achieving health equity depends in large part on equitable access to health insurance. We must work toward everyone having access to health care without unnecessary administrative burdens and stigma attached.


Public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provide critical resources and support for families with low incomes. Yet even as public benefit programs mitigate the hardships caused by economic and social exclusion, they also reinforce the underlying structures of oppression. Adequate access to food is economic and racial justice. People of color often live in neighborhoods impacted by food apartheid, where access to healthy and affordable food is limited. Grocery store chains are less likely to invest in Black communities.

The Way Forward

Our team is ready to return to the bold approach that civil rights leaders called for. We are working to make public benefits more equitable and effective, but we are also calling for policies like guaranteed income and the Child Tax Credit, which had an enormous impact on poverty in recent years. We’re also fighting to make programs like SNAP and Medicaid anti-racist. We envision a future with true economic justice for all–where everyone’s basic needs are abundantly met and everyone has the opportunities and resources to flourish. We envision a system of public benefits that is accessible, equitable, reparative, responsive, easy-to-navigate, and co-created with directly impacted people.

As we reimagine public benefits, we must center restitution, repair, trust, dignity, and equity. We will continue this work at CLASP to make public benefit programs anti-racist, while also pushing forward the larger goal of economic justice, which includes meaningful reparations for past and ongoing racial injustice.