The Racist Roots of Work Requirements

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As the debate over President Biden’s sweeping “build back better” agenda continues in Washington, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin hasn’t been shy about laying out his demands, as Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and the White House bend over backwards to garner his and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s votes for reconciliation bill that’s been moving through Congress.

High on Senator Manchin’s list: adding so-called work requirements to the newly expanded Child Tax Credit. In a September appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, he derided parents who don’t work outside the home, asking: “Don’t you think, if we’re going to help the children, that people should make some effort?”

Asked what he thought of the West Virginia Senator’s remarks, Child Tax Credit champion and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown responded as aptly as he did succinctly, declaring: “I think raising children is work.”

Of course, so-called “work requirements”—the policy of using survival benefits as a tool to compel paid work outside the home—is not a new idea. Indeed they were the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s agenda to dismantle the safety net for the better part of his one-term presidency.

But the notion of so-called work requirements dates back a lot farther than Trump—and even a lot farther back than Ronald Reagan’s racist myth of the welfare queen. Indeed, as a recent report from the Center of the Study of Social Policy documents in painstaking depth, the long and sordid history of work requirements in U.S. income policy has roots that trace back centuries to the slave trade.

So given the Senator from West Virginia’s continued interest in keeping work requirements alive, instead of turning the page on this kind of policymaking-by-dog-whistle and ensuring that all families have what they need to thrive—we at Off-Kilter thought it might be helpful to take a deep dive into the racist roots of work requirements.

Joining Rebecca for this week’s show: Aisha Nyandoro, chief executive officer of Springboard to Opportunity and architect of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust; Jeremie Greer, cofounder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation; and Elisa Minoff, senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the author of “The Racist Roots of Work Requirements.”

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