The Urban Institute has released a new analysis of the TANF block grant, Why Does Cash Welfare Depend on Where You Live? The report emphasizes that only a small share of families living in poverty receive cash assistance, and that that share has fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. That is a reaffirmation of a long-term trend. The Urban Institute also points out that cash support available to families and the conditions under which they can receive it largely depend on where they live.  They conclude that state TANF policy decisions are significantly related to race; states with larger African American populations have less generous, more restrictive TANF policies.

Some of the other key conclusions are that:

  • State decision-making is not the result of trade-offs between different dimensions of TANF policy-making: generosity, restrictiveness, and duration. In other words, like another block grant fund—child care funding, increasing quality initiatives may force states to lower eligibility or vice-versa. Regarding TANF, the states that are more generous are less restrictive and allow families to receive benefits for longer amounts of time.
  • State TANF policy decisions are significantly related to race. A state with a relatively large African American population is more likely to have less generous, more restrictive TANF policies.
  • Although state TANF policies are race-neutral in that everyone is subject to the same policies, the policies’ effects are not. Most Americans live in states with less generous maximum benefits, more restrictive behavioral requirements, and shorter time limits. But African American people are disproportionately concentrated in low-ranking states.
  • Aside from race, the patterns in state TANF policy decision-making are less clear. States with similar demographic, economic, and political contexts make different TANF policy decisions. State median income, the share of the adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree, and the share of Democrats in the state legislature are associated with stricter TANF policies on some dimensions but not others.

TANF continues to be significant to child welfare beyond the $16.5 billion block grant being a source of funding for state child welfare services.  How this anti-poverty program can and will impact on families in turn impacts on child welfare.  To the extent that state assistance policies make it more difficult on families it is likely to show up within child welfare.

The shrinking coverage by the TANF program (only 20 percent of families in poverty are covered by cash assistance compared to more than 60 percent in 1996) also highlight a long-debated policy within child welfare.

Congress linked Foster Care and Adoption Assistance to the 1996 AFDC eligibility standard out of concern that states would reduce their TANF eligibility and in turn their foster care coverage.  The link to the 1996 AFDC standard was intended as a temporary fix. Congress did fix the Adoption Assistance delink but has failed to tackle the foster care eligibility link. Despite the continued 1996 link for foster care, however, Title IV-E foster care coverage seems to be more responsive to the expanded opioid addiction in comparison to how TANF responded to the great recession of 2008-09. Federal coverage of foster care placements is increasing but cash assistance barely changed, across the country, during the recession, despite the need. That did not change until the Obama Administration added TANF funding through the economic stimulus. This may be another example of the problems of a block grant.

On another front, the Urban Institute analysis indicates that state policy choices do not follow a pattern. States with similar demographic, economic, and political contexts make different TANF policy decisions, the same may be true of child welfare. State decisions in constructing their financing and other child welfare policy choices are not related to size, geography, or federal funding choices.