States with more black people have less generous welfare benefits, study says

By Tracy Jan

How much cash welfare assistance families in poverty receive largely depends on where they live, with welfare eroding in every state except Oregon during the past 20 years, according to a new study by the Urban Institute. 

The study, released Tuesday, unveils wide racial and geographic disparities in how states distribute cash welfare, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Two decades after President Bill Clinton carried out the welfare overhaul that created TANF, states with a larger share of African Americans tend to have less generous welfare benefits and more restrictive policies, the study found.

These states also have shorter periods of eligibility for assistance, stricter requirements to maintain benefits and more severe sanctions for people who don’t abide by state welfare rules.

The findings should serve as a cautionary flag as congressional Republicans propose overhauling other federal poverty programs, said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the study’s authors. She warns that such changes are likely to exacerbate existing racial disparities.

“I would predict, based on TANF’s history, that if we were to block grant other programs, we would see similar results, with racial differences and fewer families receiving assistance,” Hahn said in an interview with The Washington Post.

TANF is funded by the federal government in the form of state “block grants,” enabling states to establish their own eligibility rules and giving them flexibility to determine how the federal money is used.

President Trump, in his budget released last month, and Republicans in Congress want to turn other federal assistance to the poor into state block grants, ending the federal guarantee of assistance.

The proposals echo the Clinton-era 1996 welfare reforms that required those receiving cash welfare to work or look for work and imposed the first federal government caps on how long families could receive the benefit.

It capped benefits at 60 months in one's adult lifetime, but some states instituted shorter limits while other states continue to provide cash assistance for children even after adults household members are cut off.

The Urban Institute researchers say that many poor families are worse off under this system than they were 20 years ago. The amount states receive in TANF block grants has not changed in that time — not even to account for inflation.

Today, for every 100 poor families in America, just 24 families receive cash assistance, compared with 64 in 1996. Only a quarter of TANF money now goes toward cash payments, down from 71 percent in 1997. Instead, states increased their TANF spending on promoting work activities, providing child care and preschool education, and offering other services not limited to low-income families.

State welfare policies subject all families, regardless of their race, to the same rules.

But the majority of black people live in states with the lowest proportion of families receiving cash assistance. African Americans are at a practical disadvantage as a result of that population distribution, Hahn said.

“The effects of these policies are not race neutral, because we aren’t geographically dispersed evenly by race,” she said.

A poor family in Vermont, where 94 percent of residents are white and only 1 percent are black, is 20 times as likely to receive welfare as compared with if that same family lived in Louisiana, where 61 percent are white and nearly a third of residents are black, according to a previous analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Vermont has the most generous welfare benefits of all 50 states, with 78 out of every 100 families in poverty receiving cash assistance. In comparison, Louisiana, the least generous state, gives welfare cash assistance to only four out of every 100 poor families. 

The disparity does not end there. Vermont offers a maximum monthly benefit of $640 to a family of three, and allows families earning up to $1,053 to qualify for cash assistance. Louisiana only offers a maximum cash benefit of just $240 a month, and families must make less than $360 a month to qualify.

In other words, a family must be the poorest of the poor to qualify for cash assistance in Louisiana, and even then, they would only receive less than half of what Americans living in Vermont would get.