This week marks the 19th anniversary of legislation that conditions income assistance for parents and children on participation in a disciplinary program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Over the lifetime of the brutal TANF regime, the provision of actual income assistance has been overshadowed by the imposition of rules and services to regulate poor mothers’ lives. As the Black Lives Matter movement shines a light on the racism of so-called criminal “justice,” it is an important moment to consider how the intersecting inequalities of race, gender, and poverty are reproduced in the policy that claims to promote poor peoples’ “welfare.”
Sexist assumptions and stereotypes about African Americans and Latinos/as were pervasive in the debate that generated TANF, a program that made limiting women’s choices and ending single motherhood its goals. Although TANF is the primary national policy dedicated to impoverished families with children, TANF legislation did not include mitigating poverty, enhancing opportunity or attenuating inequality among its purposes. As a result, while welfare rolls have declined, poverty still stalks single mothers and their children. In fact, childhood poverty and extreme poverty have both increased.