A Black man with braids and sunglasses, turning his head and showing his profile. His person is bound by a box made of red tape that crosses over his torso.
Image credit: Ron Lach on pexels.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.

Almost three decades after welfare reform, racial and economic justice movements have put forward cash programs that seek to help people rather than punish them. The requirement for social safety net recipients to perform labor in exchange for meager benefits through a byzantine process has long since been a political obsession in the United States pushed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law, which ended the entitlement to cash aid and introduced time-limited benefits tied to work requirements. This policy made history by repealing a program from the Social Security Act: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the cash assistance program for families with children that started in 1935. Instead of increasing economic mobility and good employment opportunities, however, research shows that work requirements have the opposite effect: forcing recipients into dead-end jobs or leaving them financially precarious.

Almost three decades after welfare reform, racial and economic justice movements have put forward cash programs that seek to help people rather than punish them, and guaranteed income pilots have proven that benefits without onerous work requirements effectively combat harmful narratives.

Once again, people of color are at the vanguard of this movement, articulating many of the same themes as the Civil Rights movement leaders at the National Welfare Rights Organization, who first pushed for cash without restrictions more than half a century ago.

Despite the fact that work requirements have proven to be an ineffective tool that deepens poverty and disproportionately leads to assistance denial for people of color, the practice persists. Making people work to secure basic needs and safety is a practice that goes beyond recent economic policy to an earlier history of labor in the United States: slavery and its aftermath.

Enslavement Establishes Work Expectation

Policies that demand labor in exchange for benefits reinforce practices that are often dehumanizing. While these policies come from English Poor Laws, they became racialized through the history of chattel slavery in the United States, which, for more than two centuries, forced millions of Black people into unpaid work. The boom of American capitalism in the 18th century and beyond was built on the backs of enslaved people, who were denied wages, freedom, and rights. 

Making people work to secure basic needs and safety is a practice that goes beyond recent economic policy to an earlier history of labor in the United States: slavery and its aftermath.

After emancipation in 1865, local and state legislatures in the South found ways to disenfranchise formerly enslaved Black people through the Jim Crow laws, which institutionalized segregation at every social level. South Carolina, for example, enacted “Black Codes” that restricted Black people to only farming or domestic work. Breaking these laws could mean fines, arrest, or sentences—forcing them back into unpaid labor on plantations. Vagrancy laws criminalized Black people who appeared to be not working or engaged in some other “respectable” behavior. Many Southern states recreated slave-like conditions through convict leasing, chain gangs, and the sharecropping system.

Undermining Economic Autonomy

Outside of these laws, White supremacists tried to find other ways to coerce Black people to work. During World War I—almost five decades after Reconstruction—the federal government provided monthly financial assistance to the wives of soldiers, which many Black women found sufficient to cover family expenses without additional work and granted them newfound financial freedom. In Greenville, SC, the economic autonomy of Black women was not welcomed by White employers. The Greenville City Council heard complaints of Black “women who are not at work and refuse employment when it is offered them, the result being that it is exceedingly difficult for [White] families who need cooks and laundresses to get them.” White Greenville residents defamed Black women, calling them “unpatriotic loafers” and accusing them of turning to prostitution rather than working in White homes.

In response, Greenville City Council members considered an ordinance that would have required Black women “to carry a labor identification card showing that they are regularly and usefully employed” five days a week. Black women caught without this ID would have been jailed or fined. The Greenville Black community organized and protested the discriminatory policy, ultimately pushing the city council to drop the ordinance—but the degrading and racist narratives perpetuated in Greenville about Black women persisted. These same accusations are used today to justify punitive social welfare programs.

Racism beyond the South 

As Southern states such as South Carolina and Georgia waged war against Black residents through explicitly punitive policies, many Black people left the rural South to escape Jim Crow laws and find economic opportunities elsewhere over the next several decades. Between 1940 and 1960, places like Newburgh, NY, experienced dramatic demographic and economic shifts as Black people sought work in farms around the city or in the city’s hotels and ferries. At the same time, the rise of suburbanization and the decline of wartime industry led many White residents and businesses to move out of the city, causing a major collapse of the city’s tax base.

Newburgh city leaders used Black migrants as the scapegoat for the city’s hardship. They claimed Black migrants traveled to Newburgh for generous welfare payments and, in doing so, brought down the city’s economy. In 1960, Newburgh hired city manager Joseph Mitchell and produced a report indicating that Black migrants were the source of the city’s growing welfare costs. The city council adopted Mitchell’s 13-point plan for public assistance, which required nondisabled men receiving public assistance to work for the city’s maintenance department, mothers on Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) to be denied assistance if they had a child outside of marriage, and all public benefit applicants who were new to Newburgh to provide evidence that they had a concrete offer of employment.

In reality, the evidence did not show a massive welfare problem in Newburgh—and certainly not one caused by Black residents. Very few of the city’s residents received public assistance or ADC, and most of those who did were White. There were no new Newburgh arrivals on the city’s public benefit rolls in 1960, and the city found no incidents of fraud.

In defending the plan, Mitchell utilized much of the same racist rhetoric popularized by President Ronald Reagan more than a decade later. He stated: “We challenge the right of a welfare program to contribute to the rise of slums, to the rise of illegitimacy, to the rise of social diseases among children and adults. We challenge the right [of] chiselers and loafers to squat on the relief rolls forever….We challenge the right of a welfare program to contribute…to emptying the city of responsible tax paying citizens and filling it with those who create and contribute to crime and violence.” 

Though the state supreme court blocked Newburgh’s plan in 1961, the controversy gained national attention and raised the specter of a growing welfare crisis. Other Northern localities adopted similar measures or tried to require recipients to work, in response to Black migration. The episode also got the attention of federal lawmakers, who in 1967 passed the first federal work registration policy for the recently renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), effectively signaling that AFDC mothers were workers first and mothers second.

Work Requirements Don’t Work

In the decades after the Civil Rights era, this backlash against the expansion of political and economic power intensified nationwide. State and federal lawmakers swiftly codified strict work requirements into programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), even as Black workers struggled harder to find employment compared to White workers. The rise of work requirements in US social safety net programs continues to be a recurring tactic of White supremacy, resisting the expansion of Black people’s political and economic power with efforts to limit civil engagement and force exploitative work.

In early 2018, the Trump administration encouraged states to implement work requirements in their Medicaid programs by using a flexibility waiver allowing states to operate Medicaid outside its typical rules. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) subsequently approved these waivers, adopting work requirements for Medicaid populations in 13 states. Of those 13 states, Arkansas implemented its waiver program and disenrolled people for noncompliance. 

The outcomes in Arkansas make it clear that work requirements simply don’t work. The data show that work requirements create administrative burdens, do not lead to greater employment, and end up harming people who either comply with the policy or should be exempt. In the 10 months Arkansas implemented its work requirement program (June 2018 through March 2019):

After a federal court ruling in March 2019, Arkansas’s work requirement was put to an end. Implementation of work requirements for Medicaid in other states was halted by additional court rulings. In 2021, the Biden administration rescinded all Medicaid work requirement waivers, except in Georgia.

Social Policy without Work Requirements

Nearly three decades since welfare reform passed, there has been some progress to help lift people out of poverty. Recently, some leaders in Congress have come to understand the value and pragmatism of unrestricted cash, passing multiple rounds of stimulus payments in 2020 and the temporary enhancements to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) in 2021. 

The temporary removal of the CTC’s work requirements and the monthly distribution of larger benefits contributed to the largest decline in child poverty on record, especially for children of color. Unfortunately, the CTC enhancements did not continue, and child poverty rose again the following year. (Congress is currently negotiating a new, more moderate version of the Child Tax Credit.)

Other efforts, such as the guaranteed income pilots by the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, Abundant Birth Project, and In Her Hands, prove that benefits without work requirements counter harmful narratives that have been persistent in US culture and politics.

The fact that these programs—specifically, their absence of work requirements—were a resounding success supports the idea that marginalized people deserve to live a life of their own making. As the movement to bring guaranteed cash and assistance programs builds momentum, understanding the deep history of anti-Blackness behind work requirements is critical to moving beyond harmful narratives and empowering social safety net recipients with the trust and freedom they rightly deserve.

The evidence is clear: work requirements are more than just ineffective—they exacerbate poverty and disproportionately affect communities of color. This is not merely a policy issue; it is a continuation of a historical burden that dates back to slavery.

Together, we can advocate for policies that uplift rather than punish people for circumstances beyond their control. We can support programs that provide unconditional aid and recognize the inherent dignity of every person.