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When Affirmative Action Is White

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Excellent column by Bryce Covert situating the racism of the recent proposed Medicaid work requirements with the racism in welfare policy more generally:

Calling these programs “welfare” has very specific outcomes. A majority of Americans wrongfully believe that most people who get “welfare” are black. The reality is that the largest group of public assistance recipients is whites. The racial confusion, in turn, weakens overall support. While more than half of Americans say the government spends too much on “welfare,” the same share feel that not enough is spent on “assistance to the poor.”

These attitudes are the fallout of the racialized battle over welfare reform that began in the mid-1970s, when Ronald Reagan began telling the story of the welfare queen. By 1989, two-thirds of Americans believed that welfare made people dependent and complacent. The share of people who felt the government has a responsibility toward the poor dropped substantially between 1983 and 1995.

President Reagan teed up the shot, and Bill Clinton swung. One of the signature pieces of legislation of the Clinton presidency was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which imposed work requirements on cash assistance recipients and gave states wide leeway in administering the program as they wanted.

What they wanted, it turns out, was to treat black people more harshly. Five years after reform, nearly two-thirds of families enrolled in the most punitive welfare programs were black; nearly two-thirds of the families in the least strict ones were white. Ever since, the states with the biggest black populations have had more restrictive welfare policies alongside less generous cash benefits.

With the racial motivations of these policies unmasked, the fallacy of work requirements are also exposed.

The logic of these exemptions is that there are structural reasons people can’t find jobs. And those reasons extend beyond white, rural America: Someone might be able to find a job, but not a steady one; another might not be able to work because she needs to care for a disabled family member.

It’s cruel to demand that people work to receive help they need. Everyone, of all races, should remain exempt from work requirements.

The stated reason for exemptions from work requirements — that structural reasons prevent many people from finding work — are of course true. But they’re true for those who aren’t exempt as well, which is why they shouldn’t exist. But the fact that arbitrary distinctions disadvantage African-Americans is no accident.

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