A supermarket employee with curly hair using digital tablet while she is working. She has a serious expression on her face.
Image credit: Drazen Zigic on istock.com

Work requirements—or requiring people to find employment in order to access public benefits—force people to prove that they deserve a social safety net. But where did they come from, and why are they still a central part of economic policy today? This series—Ending Work Requirementsbased on a report by the Maven Collaborative, the Center for Social Policy, and Ife Finch Floyd, will explore the truth behind work requirements. The three pieces in this series will explore the racist history of work requirements, the harmful narratives holding them in place, and the economic case for abolishing them.

Work requirements for public assistance programs come from a long history of racism in the United States, are ineffective, and are bad for the economy. So, what keeps them alive today? 

Means-tested forms of structural racism, such as requiring a person to work to receive public benefits, depend not only on ineffective, exclusionary, and economically unsound policies but also on damaging and inaccurate narratives rooted in racism and sexism. These harmful narratives create the conditions for a society that fails to equitably provide for its people and then punishes them when they need help. 

Work requirements are based on several problematic truths about the United States: an unwillingness to govern by fact rather than fiction, a deep history of racism and sexism, and a centuries-long capitalist work ethic that treats people as dispensable.  

To work toward a more just welfare system—particularly as conservative leaders continue to punish the poor—we need to interrogate why society believes in these policies; to do that, we need to look at the narratives behind them.

Narrative History

Narratives are our cultural understandings, our frames of reference, our mental models—they provide the story of our social world. They play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies and how Americans receive them. We all use narratives to make sense of the world and help us create order. They determine the extent to which we build empathy and who we see as deserving of support. 

The narrative roots of attaching work requirements to public benefits have been developing since the racist and sexist ideologies of slavery in the United States. During this time, Black people were forced into labor without choice or compensation because of the widespread cultural narrative that they were racially inferior. This idea was spread by politicians and other people in power, and repeated by news outlets and cultural media, conditioning American minds to support the continued disenfranchisement of Black people by economic means. 

These stories were directly responsible for how Black people were perceived, which legitimated their exploitation and laid the groundwork for future systems of economic inequality and social devaluation.

Take, for example, the Widow’s Pension, established in the late 19th century for families of Civil War soldiers. It was one of the earliest forms of public assistance in the United States, aimed primarily at White women whose husbands had died. Black women were denied this benefit because they were not seen as deserving in comparison to their White peers and were publicly defamed as sexually promiscuous when they did try to access it. By spreading the lie that Black women who needed assistance were immoral, these early welfare programs were able to purposefully exclude Black women and perpetuate disparities in access to economic support. 

Because the legacies of harmful narratives continue into our present, Black women and other marginalized communities still struggle against a constant threat to their security.

During Reconstruction, the restaurant industry became one of the main sectors employing formerly enslaved Black people—especially women. But instead of paying them, employers forced them to rely on tips from patrons, creating a loophole to exploit Black labor. These policies were based on the idea—never fully eradicated after slavery—that Black workers were worth less than White workers.

It wasn’t just private businesses that relied on these harmful ideas to weaken Black economic power. Heather McGhee highlights the shift in societal attitudes in the wake of the Civil Rights era: when Black Americans and other people of color began to benefit from federal investment in the public good, government aid came to be seen as an “unjust redistribution to people of color.” This transformation in public perception led to a decline in investment in social safety net programs, with many policymakers and citizens associating welfare with racist stereotypes and sexist assumptions.

This shift also led to the “welfare queen” myth, a harmful stereotype perpetuated during the Reagan era. This narrative falsely portrayed Black women as abusing the welfare system by having children out of wedlock, stigmatizing the legitimate need for usually meager forms of public assistance. These accusations were never based in reality. White Americans have always made up the largest share of welfare recipients.

The portrayals of social safety net recipients as lazy are anti-Black, sexist, and classist narratives. They still shape the arguments for work requirements today, and eradicating these ideas will benefit Black Americans, along with all others who rely on public benefits. 

Stuck in Limbo

Because the legacies of harmful narratives continue into our present, Black women and other marginalized communities still struggle against a constant threat to their security. Work requirements attached to public benefits often ignore the structural barriers that many individuals face, such as systemic racism, sexism, and limited access to quality education and employment opportunities. They fail to acknowledge caregiving responsibilities that disproportionately fall on Black women, making it difficult to comply with these requirements. To understand how these issues affect people, we must look to Black women and their experiences.

In Mississippi—a state embroiled in a TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) corruption case involving White leaders funneling nearly $100 million in welfare funds to their own pet projects—one mother testified at a 2022 hearing, noting the barriers that work requirements created to finding decent employment. 

“TANF is supposed to help us find jobs, but if you don’t find a job within a week of being in the program, you’re stuck spending hours at [Department of Human Services] offices to fulfill volunteer hours,” she explained. “You’re basically exchanging your body to sit or file papers at the office for less than minimum wage. That’s not career development. That’s called being stuck in limbo.”

As part of Maven Collaborative’s research on inequitable workplace outcomes for Black women in 2018, another woman in Mississippi said that work requirements had forced her into an impossible situation with no childcare. She relied on her benefits to keep food on the table and a roof over her family’s head. But living in an area with no access to childcare, she was forced out of desperation to drop her child at Walmart during the day because it had security guards, a bathroom, and inexpensive food for purchase. Another woman      in Mississippi shared a story of having to lock her children in a room in the absence of childcare to fulfill work requirements. These women were forced to put their children in dangerous situations because of work requirements. 

Other findings from Maven’s work in the state included descriptions of onerous work and reporting requirements for TANF and SNAP benefits. Participants shared that their access to these programs would cease without notice of denial, particularly if one of the several work reporting requirements were not done perfectly. Numerous participants reported waiting weeks to receive notice of approval or denial after they applied, as well as difficulty obtaining work requirement signatures from supervisors—due to supervisor absence, unwillingness, or error—needed to receive benefits and stay enrolled. 

Good Jobs and No Strings Attached

While work requirements are built on the faulty premise that any job is worth taking, the distinction between “any job” and a “good job” lies in factors beyond the bare minimum of employment. A job that pays less than childcare costs, imposes schedules on short notice, and doesn’t offer benefits cannot help people escape poverty. But because of narratives about what poor people and people of color deserve, they are relegated to jobs that perpetuate cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement.

If we started from the idea that all people deserved security, we could create an economy where all jobs have:

  • Income Stability 

Jobs with consistent, reliable income and steady schedules allow workers to plan their finances better, meet essential expenses, and save for the future. In contrast, jobs with irregular hours or unpredictable incomes taken on to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement can often lead to financial instability and insecurity.

  • Benefits for Both Full- and Part-Time Work

Essential benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and retirement contributions support workers’ overall wellbeing. Health insurance is especially critical, as it provides a safety net for healthcare costs and promotes better physical and mental health among workers and their families. Low-income families subject to work requirements rarely have access to basic benefits. 

  • Ultimately, we need a new vision for our social safety net—one built on trust and affirms that every person deserves to have their fundamental needs met just because they are human.Balanced, Healthy Lives

Steady schedules and paid time off contribute to a healthier work-life balance. Workers with jobs that provide these essential benefits can spend more time with their families, pursue education, and engage in leisure activities, which increases job satisfaction and quality of life. Conservative leaders tout being the party of family values yet fail to recognize that work requirements keep families apart.

  • Career Advancement

Jobs that provide opportunities for skill development and career advancement allow workers to build experience and expertise in their chosen fields, enhancing their long-term career prospects and earning potential. Without economic mobility, families—particularly BIPOC families—are stuck in the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

  • Profit Distribution

Low-wage workers often face job insecurity and stagnant salaries, while high-profit corporations enjoy significant financial gains. During the United Autoworkers Strike in September of 2023, workers walked off the job in part to protest the vast disparity between wages and company profits. All workers should be entitled to a share of the profits that they have helped create. 

Jobs with these qualities are just one part of a supportive social safety net. As opposed to work requirements that force people into terrible jobs, cash-based social safety net policies offer significant advantages in addressing poverty and supporting those in need. 

Cash-based policies outperform programs with work requirements in several ways:

They are more flexible and responsive to individual circumstances. They recognize that the barriers to employment can vary widely among individuals and communities. Cash assistance allows recipients to use the funds according to their most pressing needs, whether it’s paying rent, buying groceries, covering medical expenses, or investing in education and job training. In contrast, work requirements and excessive bureaucracy often impose one-size-fits-all solutions that fail to account for the unique challenges individuals face.

They are administratively efficient. They reduce the administrative burden on both recipients and government agencies, leading to cost savings. This efficiency means that more of the allocated funds go directly to those in need rather than being spent on administration and compliance monitoring, which is often the case with work requirements and complex eligibility criteria.

They respect individual dignity and autonomy and disrupt harmful narratives. They empower recipients to make choices that align with their personal goals and priorities. This empowerment not only preserves recipients’ agency but also recognizes their expertise in determining what is most beneficial for their wellbeing. They also uplift a narrative that Black people and people living in poverty are trustworthy and able to make the best decisions for their families. This goes a long way in disrupting the current harmful narratives.

They’re effective. Cash-based policies are responsible for the largest drop in poverty the United States has ever experienced—under the expanded Child Tax Credit of 2021—and they have a significant return on investment. Researchers found that the expanded CTC offered 10 times the return on its investment and that any program offering the same cash value would have similar effects.

Accurate narratives will help us envision the future we need: one in which every person is viewed as worthy, regardless of their ability to generate income.

The expanded Child Tax Credit was just one example of cash-based policies that have already been adopted at various levels of government. (It has since ended, but a new iteration is currently making its way through Congress, but it also includes odious work requirements that will leave the most needy families without benefits.) Reallocated TANF funds in Michigan will support a guaranteed income program for newborns, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is exploring a shift from onerous housing vouchers to cash.

Ultimately, we need a new vision for our social safety net—one built on trust and that affirms that every person deserves to have their fundamental needs met just because they are human. We need to let go of longstanding narratives that exacerbate racial and gender injustice and follow the lead of Black women who have, for decades, been fighting to be seen and valued—not demonized and punished. 

An important step toward this larger goal is to call work requirements what they are—racist and counterproductive to creating a thriving economy; as such, they should be eliminated from any and all social welfare policy conversations. We must replace the false, toxic narratives that drive paternalistic policymaking and instead root our programs in trust and dignity of all people. Accurate narratives will help us envision the future we need: one in which every person is viewed as worthy, regardless of their ability to generate income.

Let’s be bold and tell the story of a new future, where we no longer accept that poverty should exist and instead equip people with what they need to participate fully in our economy.