2017 Robert S. Schneider Dissertation Award
Contest Winner: Yiwen Cao, Ohio State University
My dissertation examines the implementation of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in the states, particularly the relationship between race, majority group racial bias, and TANF policy and the drift of TANF away from cash assistance and work supports and toward other priorities. Using advanced quantitative methods, the dissertation proceeds by first clarifying the mechanism underlying the relationship between racial demographics and state welfare policy (i.e., states with larger racial/ethnic minority populations tend to design less generous and more punitive cash assistance programs). Next, it examines whether these patterns are reflected in the use of TANF resources. Structured as a block grant affording states considerable flexibility, over two-thirds of all TANF funds are now directed to initiatives other than basic assistance and work support (e.g., tax credits, two-parent family promotion). Welfare is no longer primarily a “safety net” program and is instead a funding stream for a host of interventions. Are states with larger minority populations more likely to fund particular types of programs, such as family formation initiatives? Finally, I examine whether this drift away from cash assistance and work supports and toward other priorities has affected the material wellbeing of low-income families with children. The dissertation project has a number of implications both for TANF and for redistributive policy more generally, and I envision it informing both federal and state social welfare policy.
As a cross-state study, this investigation is relevant for many U.S. households. Approximately 1.5 million families received basic cash assistance in any given month in 2014 (Administration for Children and Families, 2014). Many more families are in economic need, however—approximately 16 million households with children fell below 150% of poverty during the same period (Census Bureau, 2014). These figures include the 1.5 million households experiencing extreme poverty (less than $2 per person per day in income), a number that has been increasing as the cash safety net has weakened (Shaefer & Edin, 2015). There have also been proposals, most notably by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, to convert programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“Food Stamps”) and Medicaid to block grants modeled on TANF. Findings from the dissertation also, then, have implications for many more of the 47 million people in poverty in the United States (Census Bureau, 2014).
The politics of “welfare” in the U.S. has long been tied to the politics of race, beginning as early as post-Civil War pension programs for widowed mothers (Ward, 2005). Previously excluded from welfare participation through both policy and administrative practice, changes in response to the civil rights and welfare rights movements in the 1960s allowed greater access to cash benefits for minority families. In 1996, welfare reform ended entitlement to cash assistance, imposing work requirements and time limits, and gave states substantial discretion over program design. States with larger populations of color on the welfare caseload, particularly blacks, tended to offer less generous benefits and implement more punitive rules (Soss, Fording, & Schram, 2011). Public policy under TANF therefore magnifies pre-existing social disparities.
My dissertation clarifies the mechanism linking race and state welfare policy—is it the demographics of the caseload, the attitudes of the local white population, or some combination? Identifying the mechanism, in turn, will lead to more effective and precisely targeted policy advocacy. If racial context in the form of caseload demographics is the stronger predictor, it suggests a national re-centralization of policy to alleviate disparities across states is needed. If racial attitudes are the key driver, then anti-racism interventions in the relevant states may be productive.
The dissertation also addresses whether racialized patterns of policy implementation have continued as TANF has drifted away from a focus on cash assistance and work support. Childcare, alternative forms of cash transfer such as tax credits, and programs to prevent pregnancy and promote two-parent family formation are all permissible uses of TANF funds. Do states in which race and racial affect are salient aspects of policymaking direct more resources to corrective programs and fewer to cash transfers and work supports? If so, the study identifies an additional inequity brought about by devolved policymaking—households in some states might receive material supports during times of hardship, while households in other states might receive corrective behavioral interventions at the cost of meeting material needs. It is even possible that the racialized pattern influences the degree of drift from basic assistance and work support, with states in which race is salient moving away from these components more quickly than others.
The vast majority of TANF policymaking scholarship focuses on the rules governing cash assistance. As cash assistance matters less within the broader program structure, it is unclear whether and how this research can assist in advocacy efforts. The dissertation will draw attention to disparities produced by alternative uses of TANF resources, particularly if different uses of funds are related to the material well-being of low-income households. In turn, advocates and policy practitioners at both the state and federal levels can work toward policy changes to eliminate such inequalities (e.g., at the state level, advocate for particular uses of resources; at the federal level, advocate for structural change in TANF policy design).
Finally, the dissertation offers more general lessons for other social welfare programs. TANF is often referred to as an element of the “social safety net” for the most disadvantaged American families, providing time-limited resources to maintain wellbeing during periods of hardship. States, though, have a number of incentives both formal (e.g., credits for caseload reduction) and informal (e.g., an imbalance between revenue and outlays in the overall state budget) to use TANF resources for other activities. It is not surprising, then, that during the “Great Recession” cash assistance rolls were only marginally responsive to the increase in economic need—states had no requirement or incentive to boost spending on basic assistance (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2011). Converting programs such as SNAP to a similar structure could further erode the public safety net, yet such proposals have gained traction in recent years. The dissertation offers lessons to policymakers and advocates on the incentives of block grant programs and the risks inherent in those structures, particularly with respect to socially disadvantaged groups. In turn, it will aid in either challenging such developments or, if they proceed, in designing policies that preserve responsiveness to economic conditions.
Overall, the dissertation addresses the challenges posed by the devolution of policy from the federal to the state level. Existing research suggests that, at least for “welfare” as cash assistance, devolution introduces racially patterned disparities in policy design. Better understanding the processes underlying this connection, whether and how they apply to other aspects of TANF, and the consequences for household-level wellbeing updates and refines this work. The dissertation identifies areas not only for improvement in TANF, but also provides guidance for the future of other components of the social safety net.