The violent treatment of Jazmine Headley and her 18-month-old son in a county assistance office in New York City exemplifies everything that is wrong with the way public-assistance programs work in the United States. It is emblematic of how our government treats low-income women and children of color — as if their every move must be controlled, surveilled, and penalized.
Here’s what happened: Headley had to take off a day from work to address a problem she was having with her child-care voucher — the assistance that she needs in order to pay for child care so she can work. According to her attorney, the welfare office had cut off her funding without warning.
The system doesn’t allow a parent to simply go online to check the status, or to send an e-mail, or make a phone call that will get answered. Instead, Headley had to wait hours to talk to someone in person. Because there was no open chair, she sat on the floor with her child.
Asked to stand up, she refused, and the armed security guards kicked into action. The situation escalated until multiple New York police officers were locked in a literal tug-of-war with Headley over her son. Despite outrage and pleas from onlookers, the officers eventually succeeded in pulling away her child as he screamed in fear.
Headley was sent to Rikers for several days without bail. The charges? “Resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration, and trespassing,”
As other writers have explained, this is not an isolated incident; it clearly fits an age-old pattern of state violence against women of color. But this scenario is also reflective of the punitive design of public assistance itself. Most public assistance offices — where people apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid — are the front lines of a group of systems that, rather than help struggling people, often discipline them.
People who seek services at these offices often report being treated poorly by staff and feel that their time has been wasted. In addition, there’s a serious problem with hyper-surveillance. Thanks to racist and sexist stereotypes about low-income people abusing the system, they are required to provide reams of documentation justifying how they use benefits and their efforts to find work.
For example, Pennsylvania caregivers that need to use their TANF benefits (cash assistance) to purchase a weekly public transportation pass must prove they did so by providing a photocopied paper receipt. That receipt must be personally brought to the office, or sent electronically by a county assistance office-staff person. To receive those state benefits in the first place, parents must prove they are actively looking for work by documenting every single hour of their job search, describing whom they spoke to, the number they called, and the outcomes. That record then must be scanned and entered into a database by a county assistance staff person, every week. If a person doesn’t do this — or if there is an error by the staff person — the state may send her a BILL saying she owes the state money. Or, worse, she might get her TANF benefits cut off, potentially leaving her and her kids hungry, unable to pay rent, or homeless.
More broadly, systemic discrimination is evident in the structure of the TANF “benefit” itself. The jobs that welfare offices require people to take to maintain this assistance are often low-wage jobs without health benefits or sick leave, with unpredictable hours, and no opportunity for career advancement. If TANF beneficiaries can’t find a job within a few weeks, they must do community service 20 hours a week to keep receiving their benefit. In Pennsylvania, this “community service” is oftentimes cleaning toilets or filing papers for big companies. TANF benefits haven’t changed with inflation for so many years that its purchasing power is now 20 percent below what it was 20 years ago. For the mother of a toddler in Pennsylvania, the benefit is equivalent to about $4.00 an hour for a 20-hour workweek — just over half the federal minimum wage of $7.25. If she gets a job, and starts making more than 50 percent of the federal poverty line, or $8,230 per year, she’s cut off her TANF benefits completely.
This wage structure, the surveillance, and the treatment people receive in public service offices are clear forms of institutionalized racism and gender discrimination.
Public assistance doesn’t have to be this way. One alternative model is a program administered in the state of Pennsylvania called the Building Wealth and Health Network (The Network), which I founded in 2014. Staff, who are trained in understanding the effects of trauma, create a space of collective support for caregivers participating in TANF and who may be dealing with homelessness, hunger, and discrimination. Network members are not told what their goals should be by a county assistance worker, nor are they forced into low-wage jobs that limit future opportunities. Instead, staff work alongside members as they create their own goals. Research on this model has proven that the Network helps people increase income and employment, and improve food security and mental health.
The weight of the TANF system’s typical approach to public assistance came crashing down on Jazmine Headley and her family. After several days, she got out of Rikers and all charges against her were dropped. But that should not be the end of our attention. Millions of other women and children are silently punished by a system that surveils and demeans them every day, without headlines or outrage. We have so many solutions that can generate freedom, healing, health, and well-being. We ought to start using them.
Mariana Chilton, Ph.D., MPH, is a professor at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, and founder of the Building Wealth and Health Network. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Nation.