Research Shows That Assistance to the Poor Is Negatively Skewed to Race and Location

It has been well-documented that America’s social safety net is often too weak and full of holes to help those who most need assistance. A new report reveals even more weaknesses with the government’s cash assistance program.


Conducted by the Urban Institute, a think tank focusing on economic and social policy, the study looks at Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program that provides cash assistance to poor families with children. Despite TANF’s goal to combat poverty since its creation in 1996, the number of families benefiting from the program has been declining. For instance, in 2014 only 23 families received TANF assistance for every 100 families living in poverty in the U.S. And in 2016, only 1 percent of the total population received assistance from TANF within an average month.

One of the most striking findings of the Urban Institute study showed that the impacts of a state’s TANF program are connected to its race demographics. In looking at the ratio of families living in poverty to those receiving TANF benefits, researchers found that the majority of African-American families live in states that provide TANF cash assistance only to 19 out of 100 families living in poverty. This means that a majority of African Americans, 56 percent, live in states ranking in the bottom half of the TANF-to-poverty ratio.

The study also found that the variations in how different families can use and benefit from TANF stem from the flexibility and power states have to shape the TANF program. In fact, states are not legally obligated to provide cash assistance to families in poverty—the grants provided to each state can be used for other matters. Data in the report show that in 2015, only 25 percent of TANF funds were actually used on basic cash assistance. Because of this, the strength of each state’s TANF policies varies widely in dictating how families can receive assistance under the program.

Researchers analyzed each state’s TANF policies on the basis of its generosity, restrictiveness and duration. They found that the racial makeup of states played a role in how generous or restrictive a state’s TANF policies were. According to the study, African Americans and other people of color are heavily concentrated in states whose policies are less generous with maximum benefits, more restrictive on behavior and dictate shorter time limits on families. African-American families, in particular, are concentrated in these lower-ranking states with harsher and more restrictive TANF policies.

This report comes on the heels of Trump’s budget blueprint that would make severe cuts to the country’s welfare programs, including TANF. Trump seeks to cut TANF funds by $21 billion over a decade, in addition to reducing the amount of money given to states by $15.6 billion. Trump’s budget cuts would also eliminate TANF’s contingency fund, which provides extra funds if an economic crisis causes more demand on the program. These proposed cuts to the program would make it even more difficult for states to provide benefits to poor families, further lessening the number of families that are eligible to achieve assistance from their state’s TANF program.

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