Racism in Public Benefit Programs: Where Do We Go from Here? 

By Madison Allen

Public benefit programs are racist. They are also essential. 

For decades, programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have provided essential support for families with low incomes. At the same time, these programs have reinforced structures of oppression. It is critical that we understand the history of the safety net in the United States because, without recognition of past and present harm, we run the serious risk of complicity in upholding systems of white supremacy. 

Many scholars have written at length about racism and the history of public benefit programs and welfare reform in America. From "mother’s pensions" in the 1900s used to exclude Black women to Reagan’s "Welfare Queen" narrative in the 1980s to Clinton’s 1996 racialized welfare reform and workfare programs, false racist narratives have long been applied to people experiencing poverty. As Johnnie Tillmon noted in 1972, "we've been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there's something wrong with their character." For decades, these narratives have served as dog whistles that are employed to garner support to cut funding and to restrict the eligibility for these programs with direct harms to both people of color and white people with low incomes.

Many of the white supremacist structures historically embedded in public benefit programs remain in place today. Disguised under terminology like "work requirements," "family caps," "drug testing," and "resource limits" – these polices are fundamentally rooted in oppression, paternalism, and control of Black and Brown lives. The policies themselves reinforce misconceptions about beneficiaries, suggesting that individuals with low incomes must be coerced to work and avoid drug use. Although whites are the largest group of beneficiaries when it comes to government programs supporting basic needs, policies that frame benefits access in terms of "deserving" versus "undeserving" rely upon and perpetuate false narratives about benefit recipients. 

While many of these policies appear race neutral, in practice they discriminate by failing to acknowledge the skewed racial realities of the U.S. criminal justice system and labor market. For example, when racial discrimination in hiring prevails, work requirements necessarily place a disproportionate burden on people of color. When states agencies direct staff to consider an applicant’s criminal history as a basis for reasonable suspicion in drug testing, people of color suffer the consequences of disparate policing of drug use in their communities. And when agencies impose resource limits with exclusions for home ownership, again people of color experience compounded barriers due to historic and systemic racism that excluded Black people from home-buying opportunities.

With Black and Latinx people dying from COVID-19 at significantly higher rates than white people, public health data is manifesting generations of racial inequities. These disquieting statistics challenge the advocacy community to propose solutions addressing the systemic and historic discrimination that have long driven policymaking and implementation of public benefit programs. Looking forward, we must ask ourselves: How do we not only reduce inequities but eliminate them? 

At a time when systemic discrimination and a widening racial wealth gap make it increasingly difficult for families to thrive, now is the time for us to evaluate the ways in which our past efforts have failed, to think beyond incremental reform, and to actively dismantle racism in the safety net. I hope that the advocacy community will consider all possibilities and continue these conversations in close partnership with people directly impacted by the outcomes.  We must follow the direction of people with lived experience and affirmatively address the ways in which public benefit programs have been complicit in enabling suppression of Black people, immigrants, and other communities of color. I look forward to the work ahead and to reimagining what is possible for the future of public benefit programs in our country.