(UPDATED) The Health Care Bill and Women’s Health: Wins, Losses, and Challenges

Jodi Jacobson

Today, President Obama will sign into law the Affordable Health Care for America Act.  An initial summary of the wins, losses, and remaining challenges for women's health and rights.

Updates and additions to the original information provided in this analysis can be found below, including “right to pump” mandate extended to every state to allow mothers to pump breastmilk at work and expansion of efforts to address postpartum depression.

See also today’s article (March 24th, 2010) on expansion of nursing and midwifery services in the health reform bill.

Today, President Obama signed the Affordable Health Care for America Act into law.  Many aspects of the Act apply across the board to Americans regardless of age, sex, health history or employment status.  Some of the provisions are of particular importance to women.  Below is an initial summary of the wins, losses, and remaining challenges for women’s health and rights.

WINS:

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Elimination of “pre-existing conditions:”

The Act bars insurance companies from denying coverage to children due to pre-existing conditions, including children up to age 19.  This provision becomes effective 6 months after signing.

The Act bars insurance companies from discriminating against adults based on pre‐existing conditions, health status, and gender.  This is a critical provision for women, but one that does not become effective until 2014.

Why is this important? To date, insurance companies have discriminated heavily against women in various markets by categorizing as “pre-existing conditions” a wide range of health concerns and conditions.  For example, insurance companies have rejected victims of domestic violence and rape and have classified women who have undergone cesarean sections as having “pre-existing conditions.”  In some cases, prior pregnancies have been considered pre-existing conditions. The new bill expressly prohibits insurers from rejecting an applicant based, essentially, on being a woman.  Again, this provision does not go into effect until 2014.

Increases access to OB-GYN and midwifery care:

Plans can not require pre-authorization or referral for OB-GYN care.  This provision becomes effective 6 months after signing.  New policies sold on the insurance exchanges would be required to cover a range of benefits, including maternity care. 

According to the Association of Certified Nurse-Midwives, the original bill in the House of Representatives, since replaced by the Act to be signed today by the President, would have expanded access to midwifery care by addressing inequities in how Certified Nurse‐Midwives (CNMs) are
reimbursed under Medicare, provided funding for home visitation by nurses for Medicaid families during or after pregnancy and improved Medicaid coverage of freestanding birth centers—a high‐quality, high‐value option for women and their families, according to the Association of Certified Nurse-Midwives.  As of this writing it is not clear whether the bill to be signed today includes these provisions, but look for updates.

Partial elimination of gender rating:

Many insurance plans charge women more for insurance coverage than they do men of the same age and health status, a practice known as “gender rating.” The Act eliminates this practice for some women but not for others. Gender rating (and other forms of rating) for individuals and small employers (up to 100 employees) will be prohibited.  It will not apply to plans offered by employers with more than 100 employees, unless a state allows large employers to enter the insurance exchanges after 2017.  In the latter case, rating rules apply to all large employer coverage in that state.  The National Women’s Law Center offers materials that explain the practice of and implications for women of gender rating.

Free preventive care under new plans.

The Act requires new private plans to cover preventive services with no co‐payments and exempts preventive services from deductibles.  Effective 6 months after enactment. This requirement will apply to all plans beginning in 2018.  Preventive care is of course critical for all ages and both sexes, but dramatically expands women’s access to screening for cervical and breast cancer and other forms of preventive reproductive and sexual health care unique to women.

Expands funding for and access to community health centers and primary health care doctors.

The Act increases funding for Community Health Centers, to allow for nearly double the amount of access in terms of patients seen over the next 5 years.  This funding becomes effective in fiscal year 2010 and is an essential aspect of health care particularly for low-income women and their families. 

Expanded access to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program

The Act expands eligibility for Medicaid to include all non‐elderly Americans with income below 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and increases assistance to all states to help cover the costs of additional people to be covered under Medicaid, the nation’s public health insurance program for the low income population.  The Act also maintains current funding levels for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through fiscal year 2015. 

More than 20-million low-income women currently receive coverage for their health and long-term care through Medicaid, and the majority of adult beneficiaries of Medicaid (69 percent) are female.  By expanding the eligibilty requirements, the Act will expand coverage to low-income women and children who urgently need primary preventive and curative care.  This is without doubt a plus for women.

A Kaiser Family Foundation brief states:

In order to qualify for Medicaid, women must meet both categorical and income criteria. That means that one must fit into a certain “category” such as being pregnant, a mother of a child under 18, 65 or older, or having a disability. Each of these groups has different income elibiligy criteria, which vary from state to state.

Medicaid income thresholds for adults have been, however, very low. And states the KFF brief, “because women are more likely than men to fall into one of the categories and are more likely to be poor, women are more likely to qualify for Medicaid. Many very low-income women, however, do not qualify no matter how poor they are because they do not fall into one of the eligibility categories.”

Medicaid is also the largest source of public funding for family planning services in the United States, financing contraceptive services for millions of low-income women. A Guttmacher issue brief,  Medicaid’s Role in Family Planning, provides an overview of Medicaid’s role in financing and providing access to family planning services for low-income women. Expansion of Medicaid services means an expansion of critical family planning and contraceptive services for women, one reason that increased access to health care helps reduce the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies and by extension the need for abortion.  Expanding access to these services and to community health centers generally will also dramatically increase access to testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, including but not limited to HIV.

Improves access to and benefits offered under Medicare:

Women make up a majority of those dependent on Medicare services.  Kaiser Family Foundation notes that Medicare is a critical source of health insurance coverage for virtually all older women in the U.S. and for many younger women who have permanent disabilities.

Today, 22 million women–one in five adult women–rely on Medicare for basic health insurance protection, and women make up 57 percent of the Medicare population. Medicare helps to make health care more affordable for older women at a time in their lives when they are most likely to have multiple health problems that require ongoing and often costly medical treatment.

The Act will reduce the economic burden of health care among women and improve their access to services by reducing costs for prescription drugs by

  • providing new, free annual wellness visits to the basic services provided;
  • eliminating out‐of‐pocket copayments for preventive benefits under Medicare, such as cancer and diabetes screenings;
  • providing better chronic care; and
  • reducing overpayments to private Medicare Advantage plans.

The Act also fills the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole.  According to Kaiser, the donut hole is a “unique feature” of the Medicare Part D drug benefit is the coverage gap.  Part D enrollees are required to pay 100 percent of total drug costs after their spending exceeds the initial coverage limit and before reaching the catastrophic coverage limit. In 2010, most Part D plans have a coverage gap, which totals $3,610 in drug costs for plans offering the standard Medicare Part D benefit; by 2019, the gap is projected to be nearly $6,000.

The Act addresses this in 2010 by providing Medicare beneficiaries who go into the donut hole with a $250 rebate, after which they will receive a pharmaceutical manufacturers’ 50 percent discount on brand‐name drugs, increasing to a 75 percent discount on brand‐name and generic drugs to close the donut hole by 2020.

LOSSES:

At the broadest scale, the statement from the National Organization for Women (NOW) most succinctly articulates the basic losses in this round of health care reform:

The bill covers only 32 million of the 47 million uninsured in this country, does not contain a meaningful public option and provides no pathway to a single payer system like Medicare for all.

While these aspects of reform affect all people, they again also disproportionately affect women.

Other losses with disproportionate or specific implications for women include:

Continuation of age-rating

The bill continues to permit age-rating, the practice of imposing higher premiums on older people. ” This practice has a disproportionate impact on women,” notes the National Organization for Women, “whose incomes and savings are lower due to a lifetime of systematic wage discrimination.”

Continuation of gender-rating

The bill also permits gender-rating to continue under some policies. “Some are under the mistaken impression that gender-rating has been prohibited,” states NOW, “but that is only true in the individual and small-group markets.”

Larger group plans (more than 100 employees) sold through the exchanges will be permitted to discriminate against women — having an especially harmful impact in workplaces where women predominate.

NOW states: “We know why those gender- and age-rating provisions are in the bill: because insurers insisted on them, as they will generate billions of dollars in profits for the companies. Such discriminatory rating must be completely eliminated.”

Lack of coverage for immigrant women

Under the Act, immigrants, a highly vulnerable population, will continue to face high barriers to acessing basic health care.  The bill imposes a 5-year waiting period on permanent, legal residents before they are eligible for assistance such as Medicaid, and prohibits undocumented workers from even using their own money to purchase health insurance through an exchange.

According to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), “If passed, the reconciliation package (being considered in the Senate this week) will cover an estimated 9 million uninsured Latinos and increase funding for community health centers, which is a lifeline for many in our neighborhoods. In addition, 4.4 million Americans in Puerto Rico and territories will receive $6.3 billion in new Medicaid funding, increased flexibility in how to use federal funding, access to the Exchange and $1 billion in subsides for low-income residents.”

At the same time immigrant women are left vulnerable.  In its statement on health reform, NLIRH pointed to these serious weaknesses:

  • Over half of all immigrants are women, and 53 percent of all immigrants are from Latin America.  The bill does not allow undocumented immigrants to buy health insurance in the exchange, and maintains a five-year waiting period for Medicaid for lawfully residing residents.  The exclusion of new immigrants from Medicaid is not only unjust, but also bad public health policy.
  • And although the reconciliation provisions are better than what the Senate originally proposed, residents of Puerto Rico are still a long ways away from receiving Medicaid and other federal health care support at the same level as other states of the Union.

Elimination of abortion care in private insurance market:

Despite the President’s promise that no American would be worse off after health reform than before, the majority of women now covered by private insurance plans now have access to coverage for abortion care, a fundamental aspect of women’s health care.

Under the language currently in the Act, incorporated at the insistence of Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) and with the acquiescence of the White House, the Senate and House leadership, women will now lose coverage for abortion care for policies paid for with private dollars.  The implications of the Nelson language have been addressed in detail in previous articles published by Rewire, but include the following:

  • Requires every enrollee–female or male–in a health plan that offers abortion coverage to write two separate checks for insurance coverage.  One of these checks would go to pay the bulk of their premium, the other would go to pay the share of that premium that would ostensibly cover abortion care.  Such a check would have to be written separately whether the share of the premium allocated for abortion care is .25 cents, $1.00, or $3.00 of the total premium on a monthly, semi-annual or annual basis.  Employers that deduct employee contributions to health care plans from paychecks will also have to do two separate payments to the same company, again no matter how small the payment.
  • Eliminates the provision in earlier versions of the Senate bill and in the original Capps language in the House bill to ensure that there is at least one insurance plan in each exchange that offers and one that does not offer abortion coverage. 
  • Prohibits insurance companies by law from taking into account cost savings when estimating the costs of abortion care and therefore the costs of premiums for abortion care.
  • Includes “conscience clause” language that protects only individuals or entities that refuse to provide, pay for, provide coverage for, or refer for abortion, removing earlier language that provided balanced non-discrimination language for those who provide a full range of choices to women in need. 

A George Washington University Study suggests that the implications of this language include:

  • moving the industry away from current norms of coverage for medically indicated abortions.

  • inhibiting development of a supplemental coverage market for medically indicated abortions.

  • “Spillover” effects as a result of administration of Stupak/Pitts will result in dramatically reduced coverage for potentially catastrophic conditions.

Women’s groups see this as a major loss.  “This battle was fought on the bodies of women and immigrant women,” states NLIRH. 

In the eleventh hour, President Barack Obama caved to the demands of a handful of anti-choice Democrats by agreeing to use the lives of women as trade.  He will use his pen to add weight to the already cumbersome abortion restrictions in the health care bill.  Latinas, immigrants, and women of color are deeply affected by any language restricting abortion access – because women of color and immigrants are disproportionately poor, they are less likely to be able to pay for reproductive health care out-of-pocket, which puts them at risk for seeking alternative, unsafe abortion methods. While health reform might lead to more Latinas being covered, it leaves out a significant portion of the population.  By excluding and stigmatizing immigrants and women who need abortions, we are pushing them to the shadows of our health care system and placing unfair burden on the already-strained system of community health care centers and emergency rooms.  Over half of all immigrants are women, and 53 percent of all immigrants are from Latin America; though it has yet to be signed by the President, this bill is outdated already. 

CHALLENGES:

In the coming months, and to truly fulfill his campaign promises, President Obama–along with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid–must lead the nation and the Congress in making the following changes to the foundation of health reform put in place today.

At a minimum, the Administration and Congress should:

  • Amend the health reform bill to establish a public option thereby increasing competition in the health insurance market.  As most analysts note, the public option is popular and also would prevent insurance companies from increasing rates by exhorbitant amounts as recently happened in California.
  • Eliminate the Nelson language in the health reform bill and revoke the Executive Order signed by the President.
  • Eliminate gender-rating in all policies, starting in 2011. 
  • Eliminate pre-existing conditions for all people in 2011.  It is not clear why we need to wait four years for insurance policies to eliminate pre-existing conditions.  Between this moment and four years from now, untold numbers of people will have to pay exhorbitant premiums to get coverage in high-risk pools due to pre-existing conditions.  It is nice to know these will be eliminated, but waiting four years defeats the purpose.
  • Remove the 5-year cap on immigrants who are legal residents and allow undocumented workers to use their own funds to purchase health insurance through an exchange.

UPDATES ON PROVISIONS NOT ORIGINALLY INCLUDED IN THIS ANALYSIS:

Postpartum Depression:

From the Perinatal Pro Weekly Blog:

[The] historic passage of Healthcare Reform also makes history for America’s mothers as language from The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act becomes LAW!!!

Finally, the plight of millions of American women, infants and families has been acknowledged and the tide forever turned! With this long sought federal mandate, states will find more support for PPD programs, researchers will find funding encouragement to continue their search for etiology and cure, and communities will harken to respond to this unmet need. Grants will be made available to fund a variety of entities and programs charged with caring for women suffering from postpartum depression.

The Right to Pump:

The Breastfeeding Blog notes that the Act establishes a right to pump at work in all 50 states. Tanya writes: Whatever you think of the health care bill passed by Congress yesterday, you may be pleased to hear that the bill extends a right to pump at work to moms in every state.  Some states, such as California and New York, already have such a law, but must most don’t.

A provision (in my mind the most important one) of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney’s legislation was incorporated in to the Senate version of the health care bill some time ago, and I’m told that it remained in the bill just approved.  When signed, the bill would require employers of 50 or more employees to:

…provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to do so. The employer shall make reasonable efforts to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk. An employer shall not be required to compensate an employee for any work time spent for such purpose.

The law establishes a “right to pump” at work up to a year from the birth of the child.  

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.