Detailed Findings and Methodology:
Congress designed TANF as part of an effort to end welfare. The stated goals are: 1) provide assistance to needy families with children; 2) end dependence on government benefits; 3) prevent out of wedlock pregnancies; and 4) encourage the formation of two parent families. Because the four goals are extremely general, states have broad authority over who gets TANF assistance, under what conditions, and the form of that assistance. As a result, TANF benefits are often used more broadly by states than the core goals of supporting needy families with temporary cash assistance.
“States got to set the rules about who is eligible for what, and what rules they need to follow to receive [cash assistance], and that’s where we see this great variability in state policy,” said Hahn.
States using TANF to support more needy families have relatively fewer restrictions and more generous benefits, while the opposite is generally true in states with the lowest TANF-to-poverty ratios. In Louisiana, where just four in every 100 poor families receive TANF, a family of three earning more than $360 per month would not qualify for the modest $240 maximum monthly benefit.
By contrast, families earning $600 or more per month in all but two of the 10 top states can qualify for relatively generous monthly benefits of at least $500. In four of the 10 top states the maximum income for eligibility is over $1,000.
Approximately half of TANF spending goes to tax credits, prekindergarten education, child welfare, and other services not limited to low-income families. The welfare spending categories of basic cash assistance, work activities, work support, and childcare — expenditures meeting the core goals of TANF — account for the remaining half of welfare spending across the nation.
These core categories account for most of spending under the TANF program in seven of the 10 states where welfare supports the most poor families, but only in two of the 10 states where welfare supports the fewest poor families.
The Urban Institute found that while TANF policies are technically race neutral, meaning that everybody regardless of race is subject to the same rules, states with less generous and more restrictive welfare policies tend to have larger African American populations, all else equal. In fact, the majority of African Americans live in states that provide TANF cash assistance to no more than 19 families out of every 100 families living in poverty.
To identify the states where welfare supports the fewest (and most) poor families, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the TANF-to-poverty ratio — which measures the number of families receiving benefits for every 100 families living in poverty — in every state from the Urban Institute. In its May 2017 report, “Why Does Cash Welfare Depend on Where You Live,” the policy think tank analyzed data from the government and a variety of other sources. Maximum monthly income for initial eligibility and the maximum monthly benefit also came from the Urban Institute. The percentage of people living in poverty, the median household income, the percentage of households receiving food stamps, and racial composition in each state came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. The Supplemental Poverty Measure is a three-year average through 2015 and came from the U.S. Census Bureau.