With the 1996 welfare law expiring this fall, Congressmembers would do well to stop congratulating themselves on its alleged successes and turn their attention to the glaring failures of the new system. Devolution, or the defederalization of public assistance programs, effectively rolled back the protections and standards won in the welfare offices by organizing efforts in the 1960s and in the courts by poverty lawyers working to increase access to benefits for poor people of color.

By giving states so much discretion to discriminate, welfare reform has compounded and institutionalized racial inequality. Even though whites earn an average of 50 cents more per hour, the National Urban League points out that whites are far more likely to receive government help after leaving public assistance than their African-American and Latino counterparts. Studies of welfare-leavers in Arizona, Illinois and Florida found that blacks were much more likely than whites to be sanctioned for administrative reasons and less likely to leave welfare for employment.

Current welfare policy also ignores systemic discrimination in the labor market, which has become even more pronounced with the recent recession. An Urban Institute study found that employer demand for African-American and Latino welfare recipients is lower than their representation in the overall welfare population. After September 11, the increase in unemployment rates for African-Americans was almost double that for whites. Figures from July of this year indicate an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent for whites, 7.5 percent for Latinos and an alarming 10.7 percent for African-Americans.

Can a focus on racial equity give progressives an opening to “reform welfare reform”? Emphasizing civil rights has been frequently overlooked as a viable strategy, but it is proving to be effective. The work of the Brooklyn-based group Make the Road by Walking, which focuses on language discrimination in welfare offices, has led to probes by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services, and to a federal court ruling to compel the City of New York to obey state and federal civil rights laws. Similarly, a series of race- and language-testing projects at welfare offices in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Arkansas and South Carolina found that states deny access to benefits on a discriminatory basis. By focusing on racial and language discrimination, Idaho Community Action Network’s testing project resulted in sweeping changes in implementation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Starting in November 2000, the Applied Research Center (ARC) brought together welfare rights organizations, researchers and national civil rights organizations to devise and launch an effort to address these issues. Proposals for stricter enforcement of civil rights and measures to promote racial equity coalesced into the Racial Equity and Fair Treatment bill, introduced in Congress in May by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It was clear that Beltway organizations would rather ignore issues of race and language discrimination than proactively address them,” says Charlene Sinclair of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. “If ARC hadn’t pushed racial equity, it would never have gotten on the table.”

The Racial Equity and Fair Treatment bill, which contains provisions to strengthen antidiscrimination and due-process protections, restores benefits to immigrants and sets standards for providing interpretation and translation services, and also establishes racial equity as a criterion for evaluating and determining state performance bonuses. This concept, in essence a “racial impact statement” akin to environmental impact statements, has been advocated for years by racial justice advocates.

Leaders of GROWL (Grass Roots Organizing for Welfare Leadership) sponsored a civil rights policy briefing in Washington, DC, and coordinated town hall meetings in several cities to build momentum for the bill. In Congress, the late Representative Patsy Mink issued a letter in support of the bill, co-sponsored by forty-three legislators. Although House Republicans rejected all amendments to their harsh welfare legislation, the Democratic leadership, which had previously ignored these issues, included key provisions of Johnson’s bill in their final substitute bill. And Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has been raising concerns about racial equity and language discrimination in the Senate.

The national effort also provides a model for organizing at the state level. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators has expressed interest in developing state versions of Johnson’s legislation. Perhaps most important, even as the bill faced long odds of passing, it focused a spotlight on the problems of unequal access and unfair treatment in the current system, making it harder to maintain the illusion of success on which punitive welfare policy now depends.