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Study Reveals Race Plays Pivotal Role In How States Dole Out Welfare Benefits

In Louisiana, only 4 out of 100 families receive the cash benefits they need. (Image courtesy of fStopImages/Getty Images)

The amount of cash welfare assistance available to families in poverty and the terms under which they can receive it largely depend on where they live, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute.

The report, published Tuesday, June 6, unveiled stark racial and geographic disparities in the way states disburse cash welfare, also known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Researchers found that TANF policy decisions are significantly tied to race, as states with larger African-American populations have less-generous and more-restrictive TANF policies. In addition, these states also often have shorter periods of eligibility for assistance, tougher conditions to maintain benefits and harsher penalties against those who break state welfare rules.

The findings come as congressional Republicans seek to overhaul TANF and other federal assistance programs, giving states more autonomy over how the programs are run and how the federal money is spent. Heather Hahn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the report’s authors, warned that such a move could leave low-income families worse off than before and even exacerbate existing racial inequities.

“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 told The Washington Post.

Study authors noted that while TANF policies are race neutral in that everyone is subject to the same policies, the rules still affect certain groups of Americans differently. For instance, most Americans live in states with not-so-generous benefits, shorter time limits and strict behavioral conditions, but African-Americans tend to be disproportionately bunched in these low-ranking states, the report found. These states include Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, Georgia and Arkansas, among others.

“There’s a stereotype that the typical welfare recipient is African-American, and the way people think about who is poor and why shapes their thoughts about policies used to address poverty,” Hahn said. “Policies are influenced by people’s racial attitudes.”

To make matters worse, welfare cash assistance has dwindled in nearly every state in the past 20 years, leaving many needy families without financial support. For every 100 poor families in the U.S., just 24 families receive welfare assistance, compared with 64 in 1996, The Washington Post reported. States have since upped their TANF spending on promoting work activities, providing child care/preschool education, and other services not limited to low-income families, leaving just a quarter of TANF funds for cash payments.

Despite this, Vermont topped the list for the most generous benefits in the country, with 78 out of 100 families in poverty receiving cash assistance. Louisiana was at the bottom of the list, however, as just 4 out of 100 families receive the TANF assistance they need.

The Washington Post reported that while Vermont offers a maximum cash benefit of $640 and allows families earning up to $1,053 to qualify for cash assistance, Louisiana offers a maximum cash benefit of just $240 a month. Families there must earn less than $360 a month to qualify for the program.

“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,” according to the newspaper.

All in all, the Urban Institute study concluded that racial makeup had a greater influence on the generosity of a state’s cash-assistance program than factors such as economics, the political ideologies of policymakers and the educational attainment of residents.

“A largely white public may find it easier to identify with a predominantly white base of welfare recipients and may, as a result, believe that welfare dependency is caused by circumstances beyond one’s control, leading them to encourage elected officials and other policymakers to support more generous policies,” authors wrote.

“On the other hand, given the pervasiveness and persistence of racist attitudes, the more the white public believes that welfare recipients are predominantly people of color, the more likely they may be to believe that welfare dependency is caused by personal shortcomings and to support more restrictive policies.”

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