A Different Kind of Welfare Reform

Welfare rights activists are rallying behind a bill that would rewrite the rules on who receives assistance, how and why. The Rewriting to Improve and Secure an Exit out of Poverty, or RISE Out of Poverty Act, recently reintroduced by Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), recognizes the work of mothers and revises the country’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program.

Molly Adams

Under the current block system, states are given a package of funds to be distributed for welfare with little to no federal input, so long as the money falls under one of four purposes: providing assistance to needy families (in the form of cash benefits), ending dependence of needy parents on government by providing job preparation and work, reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encouraging the creation of two parent families. But with states more or less free to allocate the funds as they choose, spending in the form of cash benefits that go directly to women went from 65 percent in 1996 to roughly 25 percent in 2016. While another quarter of the $16.5 billion TANF budget goes to job training and childcare, the rest varies state by state.

In Oklahoma, tens of millions of TANF dollars go to relationship and marriage classes. In Indiana back in 2015, then Governor Mike Pence authorized $3.5 million of TANF funds to women’s health centers whose mission consists of deterring women from obtaining abortions. In Michigan, financial aid to middle- and upper-income students is included under “out of wedlock pregnancy prevention,” which soaks up 33 percent of the states welfare budget. And in Wisconsin, where the RISE Act has gained the most traction, TANF funds go directly to Child Protective Services—pushing and pulling kids out of their own homes.

Since the 1996 implementation of TANF, extreme poverty has spiked, the number of mothers without income or benefits has risen from 12 to 20 percent and stringent requirements have made access to assistance incredibly difficult to attain. Given finite resources—the TANF grant has lost one third of its value to inflation—many are concerned with the level of freedom states now have to distribute funds, often according to partisan philosophies. In addition to having influence over the allocation of funds, party ideals permeate popular beliefs regarding who is to be considered eligible or deserving, who isn’t and when.

Today women are required to complete a certain number of hours of unwaged work in order to qualify for welfare assistance, but RISE would allow women to complete their mandatory hours while searching for work or while attending college. Also, states currently determine when women are required to leave newborns and return to the unwaged workforce. Some state leaves, like that of Wisconsin, are as short as two months.

While the exact time frame is still up for debate, RISE is aiming for a mandate that would guarantee leave for at least one year. Accompanying RISE is the Women’s Option to Raise Kids (Work) Act, which would give mothers the choice of raising children full-time at home while remaining eligible for welfare.

If passed, this legislation is expected to challenge the growing poverty of women and children as well as yearly cuts to Medicaid and food stamps. Rachel West, who has been organizing around RISE, calls the legislation a “breakthrough.” The Every Mother is a Working Mother Network has generated a petition for folks who want to support the RISE Act and WORK Act.

These limitations make it clear: Welfare is (still) a feminist issue. It is precisely this politicization of the flow of money and the avenues of access to assistance that the RISE Act aims to tackle.




Jessica Merino is a former Ms. editorial intern.