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TANF Policies Reflect Racist Legacy of Cash Assistance


Economic security programs can help families meet basic needs and improve their lives, but design features influenced by anti-Black racism and sexism have created an inadequate system of support that particularly harms Black families and other families of color. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the nation’s primary program for providing cash assistance to families with children when parents are out of work or have very low income, is perhaps the clearest example of a program whose history is steeped in racist ideas and policies (see text box, “Defining Key Terms,” for definitions) that particularly strip Black women of their dignity.

This paper, the first in a series on TANF and race, documents more than a century of false and harmful narratives — such as that Black women are unfit mothers — and paternalistic policies that sought to control Black women’s behavior and compel their labor. It then shows how these ideas and policies still influence TANF today. (It does not cover the full scope of TANF policies that are racist and should be changed, including child support enforcement requirements that apply to custodial parents and exclusions of immigrants.) This legacy of exclusion and subjugation is a major reason why TANF cash assistance, though a critical support for some, doesn’t meet the needs of most families in poverty, regardless of their race or ethnicity.


Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2021). TANF policies reflect racist legacy of cash assistance.