Spotlight Exclusives

The Racial Biases of the Welfare System

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of two landmark pieces of legislation: The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which initiated the War on Poverty, and the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of the people who fought for these two laws such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hubert H. Humphrey saw them as intimately connected. Yet 50 years later the two exist in largely separate spheres. We celebrate the Civil Rights Act as a victory over a shameful chapter of our past while barely acknowledging the persistence of poverty or the racialized patterns that underlie it. In separate conversations that make little mention of contemporary racism, we take stock of the War on Poverty in more measured and worried terms.

Addressing poverty requires an honest conversation about the intersection of these two issues; especially given that some current programs continue to be beset by many of the structural biases we hoped to have left behind.

Over the past decade, I worked with Richard Fording of the University of Alabama and Sanford Schram of Hunter College to conduct a comprehensive study of welfare reformthe system created in 1996 by lawmakers who sought to recast public aid programs as bold efforts to promote work. Our findings should be deeply troubling to the large majority of Americans who endorse principles of racial equality.

To begin, there is strong evidence that race-based welfare rhetoric can have far-reaching effects. In the 1990s, critiques of welfare often focused on racially charged images of “welfare queens” and the “urban underclass.” Analyzing national opinion trends over this period, we find that beliefs about African Americans and welfare programs turned sharply more negative, shifting together and becoming more tightly entwined. In fact, stereotypes of black laziness and sexual irresponsibility became the most powerful predictors of support for policies designed to limit public aid and reform the poor.

After 1996, state officials implemented federal policy in ways that proved remarkably sensitive to racial differences. States with higher percentages of black recipients adopted tougher versions of work requirements, time limits, sanctions for program violations, and other program rules. These policies have made it harder for poor families to obtain the assistance they need and have negatively affected levels of earnings, education, material well-being, and civic engagement.  

Racial politics have diminished welfare protections for all American families. But black families have had to confront the toughest program designs with the strongest penalties. By 2001, just five years after passage of the new law, 63 percent of families in the least-stringent state programs were classified as white and only 11 percent as black. Of families in the most-restrictive programs, 63 percent were listed as black and just 29 percent as white.

As these policies were put into practice, racial disparities deepened. Blacks were far more likely than whites to get sanctioned if they received aid for longer periods (evoking stereotypes of dependence) or were enrolled in more politically conservative counties (where negative black stereotypes run stronger, according to our research).

To test more carefully for this bias, we asked case managers to decide whether to sanction a fictional client. The facts of the case were always the same but for two elements that welfare rules dictate should be irrelevant: the identity of the client (black versus white) and whether the record indicated a previous sanction (which might discredit the client as a potential troublemaker). The addition of the prior sanction had no effect on case manager decisions to sanction the white client. But when the prior violation was added to the black client۪s record, case managers whatever their own race became significantly more likely to impose a new sanction.

The findings from our study point to a troubling conclusion: systematic racial biases are being produced by government programs that outlaw discrimination and by officials who express support for principles of racial equality. In welfare programs today, racial stereotypes continue to exert a subtle but powerful influence on policy choice and administration. Psychological biases combine with the organization of welfare programs to predictably color outcomes across the system.

The weight of this evidence is deeply troubling. Yet hardly a word is being said about the racial inequities of our welfare system. Policy remedies are not in short supply. There are legislative proposals that would make welfare more helpful for families, and less reliant on the most racially-biased policy tools. More ambitious reforms could reduce disparities by developing national floors and standards for state programs, tools for tracking systemic bias, and new ways of organizing casework. Bolder systemic changes, such as the creation of a universal Basic Income Guarantee, could put an end to nearly all forms of racial bias in the ways income-support rules are targeted and implemented.  

Most Americans claim to oppose public policies that violate principles of racial equality. Do we mean what we say? The time has come to find out.

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Joe Soss is the Cowles Chair for the Study of Public Service at the University of Minnesota, where he holds faculty positions in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Department of Political Science, and the Department of Sociology.

An interview with the author about the research presented in this commentary is also available at

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