“Dignity of work” rhetoric has long been used to justify conditioning welfare assistance and tax relief on engagement in wage labor. The argument goes: “[w]ork is good, more of it is better and policy should be a conveyor belt from the moral torpor of idleness to the dignity of wage labor.” This argument has been invoked most recently by conservatives to critique the American Rescue Plan’s (ARP) expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which removes work incentives from the benefit.

It is time we put the dignity of work rhetoric to rest. It’s premise—that untethering cash assistance from wage labor will incentivize low-income parents to drop out of the workforce—is inaccurate and is rooted in deeply racist and sexist ideas about the type of labor that is dignified and the types of people we require to work in order to earn dignity. To unpack this history and modern implications for the CTC, I spoke with Amy Matsui, Director of Income Security and Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. Matsui argues that we must “pull back the curtain” to unveil how the current tax and welfare systems have systematically failed the most marginalized in our communities and to finally recognize that work incentives are not really about work, but are about “keeping women of color economically desperate.”

The Dignity of Work and the AFDC

The raced and gendered motivations behind dignity of work rhetoric are perhaps most clearly demonstrated through the evolution of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which became Temporary Assistance to Needy Families after President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform.

Ironically, Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC’s predecessor) was started so that “morally worthy” widowed white women didn’t have to work. White women were not only not required to work, but they were expected not to work so they could raise children and take care of the home. This has never been the expectation of Black women. Feminist scholar Lucy Williams documented how Black women with and without children have always been expected to work whether as slave labor, agricultural labor, or as domestic labor. AFDC, then, was only acceptable because it enabled white women to stay in the home while keeping Black women in the workforce. It did this through morality and “suitability” requirements, which disqualified women who cohabitated with a man other than their husband or who had children out of wedlock. For example, 6,000 families were cut off from AFDC due to a 1960 Louisiana suitability law; 95% of the children in those families were Black. The head of Georgia’s Department of Welfare explicitly justified a similar rule by touting cost savings “mainly by limiting aid to children of unwed Negro mothers.”

The National Welfare Rights Organization fought these suitability laws across the country, and they were eventually struck down in court. But as Black women began utilizing AFDC, as Dorothy Roberts notes, the image of the mother needing assistance “transformed from the worthy white widow to the immoral black welfare queen.” The “welfare queen” gained notoriety under Raegan as the archetypal welfare recipient: a Black woman who systematically and maliciously relies on the State for financial support due to her irresponsible and sexually promiscuous choice to have children out of wedlock. This racist and inaccurate image dominated the public discussion of welfare reform and was a factor that led Congress to introduce work requirements into AFDC for the first time in 1967. Welfare reform became less an attempt to help families in need and more, according to Naomi Cahn, “an attempt to control poor black women.”

This trend accelerated with President Clinton’s welfare reform: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act “reformed” welfare by implementing work requirements for nearly all cash assistance.

The Dignity of Work and the Child Tax Credit

The CTC, which reduces a family’s tax liability by the amount of the credit for which they qualify, has a similarly troubled history. Enacted in 1997, the CTC was initially structured as assistance for middle- and upper-middle-income families. Matsui notes that as CTC eligibility expanded to lower-income families over the years, conservatives warned that it would become “welfare through the tax code.” Yet in 2020 about 40% of CTC dollars still went to households with income over $100,000; whereas, only 15% went to households with income under $30,000. This is primarily due to the fact that the CTC was only partially refundable: a low-income taxpayer was only eligible to receive a fraction of the available credit, and those earning less than $2,500 were entirely excluded. This acted as a work incentive and led to wide racial inequities; a recent study found that about three-quarters of white and Asian children were eligible for the full CTC benefit, while only half of Black and Hispanic children were eligible.

The ARP’s one-year expansion of the CTC is changing this. The expansion increases the credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child under the age of 6 and to $3,000 per child between six and eighteen. Most significantly for low- and no-income families, the ARP CTC is fully refundable. In practice, this means that a single mom with a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old, who did not engage in wage labor for the past year due to a health issue or to the exorbitant costs of childcare would now receive the full $6,600 benefit whereas, under prior law, she would have received nothing. The ARP CTC is estimated to reduce child poverty by more than half, having the largest impact on Black and Hispanic families.

The American Families Plan proposes to make the refundability permanent and to extend the expansion to 2025, but its passage is an uphill battle and will face a barrage of conservative dignity of work arguments.

Conservatives like Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee called the ARP CTC “no-strings-attached welfare.” And prominent conservative think tank American Compass published its own proposal for a Family Income Supplemental Credit (FISC) with the aim of “supporting families already striving to support themselves but under pressure from the demands of child-rearing.” Like the expanded CTC, FISC would increase the yearly child allowance. Unlike the CTC, FISC would maintain work requirements. American Compass justifies the work requirement by saying that “[t]he rewards of work arrive . . . in the dignity and respect that accompany the indispensable role of providing.”

Underlying this claim is the assumption that wage labor is nearly always the economically and morally correct choice for a parent trying to support a family. This has been refuted from an economic perspective, and, as Matsui argues, it is inconsistent with the truth that “there is dignity in both paid and unpaid work.” The hypocrisy is especially stark coming from conservatives who are associated with traditional family values that valorize a parent’s (read woman’s) choice to stay at home and raise the children.

Matsui concludes that “the idea that you have to incentivize work by not giving people enough to survive on is fundamentally inconsistent with a vision that promotes human dignity.” Rather, the dignity of work rhetoric is designed “to justify not making investments to make tax and welfare policies work for everyone.” Especially when those it doesn’t work for are predominantly Black women.