Why Is the Arizona Immigration Law A ‘Women’s Issue?’

Amie Newman

With the recent passage of the most extreme state immigration law in the country, immigration advocates are speaking up about why the Arizona law is a women's health and rights issue as much as anything else.

With the recent passage of possibly the most far-reaching state immigration law in the country, Arizona and the immigrants who live there are on everyone’s minds. Among many extreme policies, the law allows for local law enforcement to detain anyone about whom they have a “reasonable cause” to believe may be in the state illegally. Reasonable cause is left up to the discrimination (no pun intended) of each individual police officer – it could be the color of one’s skin or someone’s accent. As Silvia Henriquez, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health writes, “The law goes beyond encouraging racial profiling; it demands local police seek out “foreign characteristics” in order to hunt down immigrants without documents…” That is, it also requires residents to carry their immigration papers at all times; or face state criminal penalties if one is caught.

For feminists, women’s rights and health advocates and women’s media outlets, the question posed most frequently about the Arizona law seems to be a variation on: “Is immigration a women’s issue?” The consensus? Of course it is. But, why? Don’t we care about the immigrant men who have, for so long, toiled away in the U.S. at low-paying jobs, treated unfairly in the workplace, and struggled for dignity? It’s not about the invisibility of the male immigrant experience, of course. It’s about the unique story of women who are now emigrating to the United States in greater numbers than ever before, while still remaining dependent more often than not on a male partners’ visa to remain in this country. It’s about the vulnerability of the female experience as it relates to her body and health. It’s about the fact that a woman is exposed to vastly different, dangerous scenarios because of her sex. And it’s about telling the stories of individual women who may not only encounter threatening situations and barriers to health care for themselves, but are in unique positions as caretakers and protectors of their children’s lives and health as well. 

Miriam Yeung of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights (NCIWR), a group that includes her own organization–the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Institute for Reproductive Health and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)–says, “…Immigrant women are the ones who make health care and child care decisions in their families – this law is cutting off communities at the knees.”

Consider this story, told by Henriquez to illustrate the ways in which the immigrant women’s experience is often uniquely connected to her health and the lives of her family members:

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“Just two years ago Juana Villegas was arrested for a routine traffic violation in Nashville after leaving a clinic for a pre-natal visit and detained when she was unable to produce a license. Despite the fact that driving without a license is a misdemeanor in Tennessee that generally leads to a citation, Ms. Villegas was taken into custody due to suspicions about her immigration status. Ms. Villegas was jailed for six days, during which time she gave birth to a little boy while shackled to a bed under the watchful eye of the sheriff’s officer. Barred from speaking to her husband, her baby was taken from her upon birth, leading to a number of health repercussions for both mother and baby. Local police stood by their actions, calling Nashville “a friendly and open city to our new legal residents.” In a chilling display of Nashville’s “friendliness,” local police also confiscated Villegas’ breast pump.”

Debra Haffner of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice answers people’s questions about why she’s speaking out against the Arizona law, given that her work is primarily on issues of sexual health and justice: “Because all of these issues are interconnected, and because as long as there is injustice for any group, there cannot be, “liberty and justice for all.””

Immigration Has A Female Face

Sure, the story of immigration into the United States has traditionally been of a man leaving home, with dreams of a decent-paying job dancing in his head, while a wife and maybe children wait patiently at home for the fruits of his labor to arrive each month. But by the end of the 20th century, says New American Media’s 2009 report, Women Immigrants: Stewards of the 21st Century Family, this arrangement no longer suited women and women’s desire to keep ones’ relationship and family intact.

Over the last decade, the number of women migrating to the United States has not only increased dramatically, women now make up more than half of all immigrants coming to this country. More women than ever before are crossing the border into the United States, and doing so during their prime reproductive years. These are young women seeking opportunities for their families, to improve their lives and the lives of their current or future children.  

One-third of immigrant women who enter this country are also acting as heads of households once they are here, finds a New American Media poll, and women have been “remarkably successful” during this time at keeping their families together:

“Some 90 percent of women immigrants interviewed (30 percent of whom are undocumented) report their family units are intact – their husbands live with them, and their children were either born here or have joined them in this country.”

With so many women emigrating to this country and balancing the responsibility for work and family life once they are here, immigration is undoubtedly a “women’s issue” any way you look at it.

But is it being looked at, on a policy level, as a women’s issue? Miriam Yeung says, “…all of our immigration policies have been crafted without any gender analysis or any focus or thought about women.”

And while it’s empowering to recognize how successful women have been at keeping their families together as they work to build new and better lives for themselves in a new land, it’s critical to acknowledge that the female immigrant life in America is a fragile one that needs a stronger foundation, not more cracks. Strengthening immigrant women’s lives in the United States strengthens families. With passage of laws like the one in Arizona, we’re setting women and families down a backwards path of disruption and discord.

A Need For – And A Fear of – Help

Immigrant women face particularly challenging and sometimes horrendous scenarios, because they are female. 

As Irin writes on Jezebel about immigration as a women’s issue, “From the beginning, these women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, particularly if they lack documentation to enter this country.”

Women are far more likely to enter this country dependent upon a male partner’s employment visa: Seventy-two percent of those who hold employment visas in the United States are men.

Vulnerability comes in many forms: sexual violence that can start on a woman’s journey to the U.S. to domestic violence once in this country made worse when a woman is dependent upon a male partner to stay in this country; and extreme barriers to reproductive and sexual health care so critical to immigrant women who are here during their childbearing and parenting years. A law like the one in Arizona exacerbates all of these situations.

M. Elizabeth Barajas-Román, Policy Director for the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health (NLIRH) says,

“We know that women who are here on a male partner’s visa have limited choices. You don’t have to be a US citizen or legal resident to get a protection order and most courts did not ask about immigration status. However, if local police [in Arizona] are now empowered to turn in “suspected” undocumented immigrations – it obviously will reduce if not totally cutoff undocumented immigrant women’s ability to seek help.”

For women who find themselves in a violent relationship, the Arizona law will undoubtedly put them in an even more dangerous place. The resources they may have visited for help, prior to the passage of the law, will now be eyed with extreme suspicion and fear. Says Bryan Howard, CEO of Planned Parenthood Arizona,

“For some of our patients, we’re understood to be a safe place; maybe we’re the only person they can talk to about an abusive or coercive relationship…Do patients [with this new law] …come to us now for health care but then don’t disclose a situation because they are afraid of what we’ll do with it? Will they be thinking, “Will PP contact the authorities?” Do they start withholding information? Of course, they’d prefer to get help but are afraid.”

It’s not only the emergency services, such as those so important to women in a domestic violence situation, which may be inaccessible to immigrant women under this law. It’s the critical reproductive and sexual health care that women need to attend to regularly which may be sacrificed because of fear of being “caught.”

Says Howard, “the tendency of people to go underground” whether they have documentation or not, will be made worse. In Arizona, legal permanent residents qualify for Medicaid including children and pregnant women under SCHIP, but only after they’ve been in the country for five years.

But those individuals who are undocumented are only eligible for Emergency Medicaid, aays Barajas-Roman, where “treatment is limited to serious health emergencies such as labor and childbirth. Therefore, most undocumented women forgo routine health care, including prenatal care and other preventive reproductive health services.”

Title X-funded family planning programs in Arizona do not require that legal residency is verified in order to provide services. Says Barajas-Roman, “When they do get sexual and repro health services, they usually turn to Community Health Centers, Title X centers and School Based Health Centers because these providers will rarely ask for documentation status.”

However, says Howard,

“Our experience over recent years is that people who either aren’t here legally or who have family members who aren’t here legally try to avoid what they think of as “official institutions,” like health care. In this state, there are a high number of deportations, families broken up. So, of course, there’s a real fear that if you come to the attention of authorities that it will put you or someone you love at risk. It’s frustrating because it’s a basic tenet of public health – that you don’t drive people underground.”

As mentioned above, although women who are in this country for more than five years qualify for public programs like Medicaid, the five-year bar, says, Barajas-Roman, is a restriction which creates “near-impossible barriers to basic reproductive health care such as regular cancer screening, contraceptives and abortion services.”

It’s something Howard worries about with both documented and undocumented women, who use Planned Parenthood services or who would benefit from their services.

“I have no doubt there will be patients who would have come in but who are now sufficiently fearful, with the passage of this law, that they either are going to forego, for example, birth control or have a relative get it for them.

We’re already seeing patients with interrupted health care. Women are asking for longer-term contraception because they aren’t sure where they’re going to be getting their health care next. They’re asking for IUDs or seeing if they can get 6 or 12 months of oral contraception. They talk to our clinicians about that and will say – our family is leaving and we’re not sure where we’re going so you can help with this? Our two concerns, then, are the continued disruption in people’s lives, the disruption of established health care relationships as well as the real risk of further driving people away from institutions that feel “public” out of fear that they will get noticed by authorities.”

When a woman accesses needed family planning services, regularly, it also means she’s receiving care like an annual exam; which includes a Pap smear, breast exam and more. It means she’s seeing a qualified provider who knows her medical history and can advise on appropriate birth control options. It means knowing whether one form of contraception may be medically contra-indicated for a particular woman. When a woman, for example, comes in to get birth control for a relative who is too fearful, and passes it on to that relative, the relative is not getting an exam, and is not being assessed for whether the form of contraception is appropriate for her, notes Howard.

Abortion Access

And when it comes to immigrant women who need abortion services in Arizona?

When it comes to minors, Arizona has a parental consent law. It means that minors must either have the consent of a parent to access an abortion or seek a judicial bypass (and it’s hard to imagine the daughter of an undocumented parent showing up in a courtroom). Providers like Planned Parenthood must verify age before a procedure – but not necessarily residency status.  But abortions cost money and as medical procedures go, they are not cheap. Arizona does not offer state funds for abortion care though there is an abortion fund in the state that will pay for up to one-third the cost. It’s still not nearly enough.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health’s Barajas-Roman says,

“Undocumented immigrant women’s access to abortion services is even more limited than their access of sexual and reproductive health services. The fact is, abortion through safe and legal channels is inaccessible for many low-income and immigrant Latinas. 

Many health centers do not provide abortion services, and when they do, the cost of the procedure is prohibitive. And for new immigrants that do qualify for Medicaid, the Hyde Amendment will bar them from getting federal assistance for an abortion.”

If it seems like impeded access to abortion, contraception, prenatal care, childbirth care, annual exams, STI checks, and family planning are just pebbles in a pond compared to the larger issues facing immigrant women in Arizona after the passage of the new law, think again. With women making up the majority of immigrants, increasingly acting as heads of household and central figures in their community once in the U.S., and, finally, coming to this country during their prime reproductive health years, it’s likely one of the most important issues facing immigrant women. Raising extreme barriers to health care for immigrant women means endangering their health and lives but also the health and lives of their children –whether their children are legal residents or not. If a woman is too afraid to seek health care for fear of being “caught” it’s hard to imagine she’ll feel comfortable bringing her child to seek regular health services or accompanying a pregnant relative as she seeks prenatal care or medical assistance during childbirth.

As you would imagine, advocacy organizations, coalitions and providers like Planned Parenthood are doing all they can to help immigrant women and their families receive care while also challenging the law.

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights are working hard to get the word out about the impact of the Arizona law on women’s lives and the lives of their families. Barajas-Roman says,

“We look forward to working with Senate leadership in amending their immigration outline so that it goes beyond enforcement-only mandates and instead takes a balanced, comprehensive approach that acknowledges the central role immigrant women play in their families and communities.”

Planned Parenthood of Arizona says they are involved with various provider and social service networks that work on improving access to care for immigrants in the state and they are working within their organization to make sure they get the word out to women:

“We have a statewide call center that takes 20,000 phone calls/month…Women are calling with questions about their health. Our 16 full-time call center representatives have been briefed about how to answer questions and give information to reassure callers that if they need care, that they can come to us without concern.”

And Yeung reminds us,

“This is a stigmatization of immigrant women period … We want to raise this issue as dire as it is and to remember that…When Arizona attacks the pillars of community, you’re tearing away the underpinning of strong families and of strong communities.”

Because the Arizona immigration law targets women – as heads of household, as child-bearers and primary parental figures, and as critical central figures in family and community life – women’s rights and health activists must stand strong in opposition to the biased and stigmatizing law together.

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.