Special Report

States Where It's Most Difficult to Get Welfare - Even If You Need It

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program replaced in 1997 the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program as the nation’s core welfare program. At the time, the reason was that AFDC was not reducing poverty. But according to the nonpartisan research institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the changes have resulted in even less families in poverty receiving assistance. 

While the federal government set a two-year time limit for the receipt of welfare payments and added work requirements, other nationwide standards went by the wayside. States were given block grants and allowed to run their welfare programs on their own terms, with little federal oversight. 

With a new emphasis on reducing the number of out-of-wedlock children and incentivizing work for parents, there has been a de-emphasis on cash payments, necessary for food, rent, clothing, utilities, health care, diapers, and other essentials for a home where children are being raised. States have enacted harsh eligibility rules for cash payments and, in many cases, are  misspending  their block grants for non-poverty related purposes. 

Only 21 out of 100 poor families received cash payments from TANF in 2020, down from 68 out of 100 in 1996, the last year of the AFDC program. And the amount of available cash is getting lower in practical terms, as the investment in the block grant program has not changed in its 25-year history, during which time it has lost 40% of its value. (This is the city where most people live below the poverty line in every state.)

Moreover, today, far fewer children in poor families than at any time in modern history are likely to be receiving help to meet minimal basic needs. According to a recent study, in 1995, 2.8 million children were taken out of deep poverty – defined as family incomes 50% lower than the poverty level – while in 2017, only 260,000 children were. Black children receive the least help, as black populations tend to be larger in the states with the most miserly TANF programs.

To determine the states where welfare supports the fewest families, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data on TANF benefits recipiency and poverty from the nonpartisan research institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States were ranked based on the number of families receiving TANF benefits for every 100 families with income below the poverty line – the TANF-to-poverty ratio. 

As measured by the TANF-to-poverty ratio, the number of families receiving TANF assistance out of every 100 families living in poverty ranges from a meager 3.5 for every 100 poor families in the lowest state to 71.3 for every 100 poor families in the highest state. In 1996, no state had a TANF-to-poverty ratio of less than 10. In 2016, three states did, and by 2020, there were 14 states where less than 10% of poor families were receiving TANF cash grants.

It is impossible to measure the long-term impacts of the nation’s failure to rescue children from poverty and protect them against future poverty, but they are certainly significant. Studies show that the level of cash assistance to families with children has a direct correlation with higher brain function and social skills in children. (These are the ZIP codes with the highest poverty rates in the nation.)

These are the states where it’s most difficult to get welfare – even if you need it
Click here to read our detailed methodology

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