It seems that ‘90s fashion isn’t the only trend from that decade back in style. Previewing his upcoming legislative proposals to reform American poverty programs, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently expressed his support for the 1996 welfare overhaul and affirmed his commitment to actually increasing work requirements for welfare recipients.
Using racially coded language, Ryan appeared on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America show, and called for more work requirements for men “in our inner cities,” citing a “tailspin of culture” in which inner-city men aren’t “learning the value and the culture of work.” While this leftover rhetoric from the neoliberal craze of the mid-‘90s clearly targets urban black men, the welfare reforms that Ryan is naively touting as revolutionary are nothing more than the racism, classism, and sexism that underwrote welfare reform in the first place.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, championed by the Democrats’ own Bill Clinton, did away with the traditional welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Many know that TANF ended the federal need to provide public assistance by deferring to each individual state, requires states to have 50 percent of their TANF caseload meet standards of work participation, and it imposed a strict five-year lifetime limit on benefits, as well as a two-year consecutive limit.
But there’s a way TANF violates recipients’ reproductive privacy, as well that some may not realize: Under TANF, states may impose family caps which allow the state to deny additional funding to a recipient or reduce the funding she already receives if she gives birth to another child. This punitive measure may force welfare recipients to terminate a wanted pregnancy because they are unable to afford another child or afraid to risk losing their benefits.
TANF violates the human rights of welfare recipients in various ways, including discouraging education and offering meager assistance. To meet the work requirement, recipients must engage in “work activities” for 20 to 30 hours a week at least, and only vocational school counts towards those hours. Think about it: single mothers on welfare must work 20-30 hours a week, raise their children, and then on top of that find the time and money to obtain an education that could actually help lift them out of poverty without TANF funding. It is unfeasible and unfair.
What’s more, Ryan seems oblivious to the fact that the benefits afforded recipients under TANF are so low that according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “they are not sufficient in any state any state to raise family’s income above 50 percent of the poverty line.” TANF benefits are actually falling and are worth less in most states now than they were in 1996, adjusting for inflation. Unfortunately, the majority of TANF recipients are low-skilled and are stuck at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. With the median state assistance of $427 a month for a family of three, it is nearly impossible to make a living and provide for one’s family while on TANF.
All of this about a program that Ryan has touted as “revolutionary” and “widely seen as the most successful reform of a welfare program.”
The harmful myths that Paul Ryan and other neoliberal politicians espouse, that welfare recipients are lazy, need to work harder, and refuse to get an education, aren’t just offensive stereotypes. They inhibit us from actually creating an acceptable safety net that could lift people out of poverty and get them off of TANF not because they’re kicked off, but because they no longer need assistance.
Paul Ryan is right about one thing: we need to reform our current welfare system. Just not in the way he thinks we do.
It is near impossible to untie the knots of political hypocrisy that have ensnared Paul Ryan. On the one hand, the former vice-presidential candidate is a staunch Catholic, which would seemingly align him with helping the poor rather than punishing them. Instead, he supports punitive welfare reforms and scolds urban black men as the cause of poverty, rather than the neoliberal policies he himself supports. At the same time, he is vehemently anti-abortion, yet seems to support family caps which could force women on welfare to seek an abortion.
But if we begin to unravel the rhetoric, it becomes clear that Paul Ryan is no policy wonk, nor is he a revolutionary economic mind (he has already been criticized by economists for misleading and misrepresenting the facts on welfare in his latest proposal). In fact, he’s not even unique. He’s just another run-of-the-mill conservative who blames systemic poverty on those who are poor, who believes that women have no right to reproductive freedom or privacy, and who subscribes to the racist stereotype that black men are lazy.
Paul Ryan seems hellbent on destroying the tattered remains of the American social safety net. In the process, it is people of color and low-income women who will suffer. Judging by his ideology and offensive rhetoric, that very well may be the point.