How much cash welfare assistance families in poverty receive largely depends on where they live, with welfare eroding in every state except Oregon over the last 20 years, according to a new study by the Urban Institute.
The study, released on Tuesday, unveils wide racial and geographic disparities in how states distribute cash welfare, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Two decades after President Bill Clinton carried out the welfare reforms that created TANF, states with a larger share of African Americans tend to have less generous welfare benefits and more restrictive policies, the study found.
These states also have shorter periods of eligibility for assistance, stricter requirements to maintain benefits, and more severe sanctions for people who don't abide by state welfare rules.
The findings should serve as a cautionary flag as Congressional Republicans propose overhauling other federal poverty programs, said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the study's authors. She warns that such changes are likely to exacerbate existing racial disparities.
"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 said in an interview with The Washington Post.
TANF is funded by the federal government in the form of state "block grants," enabling states to establish their own eligibility rules and giving them flexibility to determine how the federal money is used.
President Trump, in his budget released last month, and Republicans in Congress want to turn other federal assistance to the poor into state block grants, ending the federal guarantee of assistance.
The proposals echo the Clinton-era 1996 welfare reforms which required those receiving cash welfare to work or look for work, and imposed the first federal government caps on how long families could receive the benefit.
It capped benefits at 60 months in one's adult lifetime, but some states instituted shorter limits while other states continue to provide cash assistance for children even after adults household members are cut off.
The Urban Institute researchers argue that many poor families are worse off under this system than they were 20 years ago. The amount states receive in TANF block grants has not changed during that time -- not even to account for inflation.
Today, for every 100 poor families in America, just 24 families receive cash assistance, compared to 64 in 1996. And only a quarter of TANF money now goes towards cash payments, down from 71 percent in 1997. Instead, states increased their TANF spending on promoting work activities, providing child care and preschool education, and offering other services not limited to low-income families.
State welfare policies subject all families, regardless of their race, to the same rules.
But the majority of black people live in states with the lowest proportion of families receiving cash assistance. African Americans are at a practical disadvantage as a result of that population distribution, Hahn said.
"The effects of these policies are not race neutral, because we aren't geographically dispersed evenly by race," she said.
A poor family in Vermont, where 94 percent of residents are white and only 1 percent are black, is 20 times more likely to receive welfare than if that same family lived in Louisiana, where 61 percent are white and nearly a third of residents are black, according to a previous analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Vermont has the most generous welfare benefits of all 50 states, with 78 out of every 100 families in poverty receiving cash assistance. In comparison, Louisiana, the least generous state, gives welfare cash assistance to only four out of every 100 poor families.
The disparity does not end there. Vermont offers a maximum monthly benefit of $640 to a family of three, and allows families earning up to $1,053 to qualify for cash assistance. Louisiana only offers a maximum cash benefit of just $240 a month, and families must make less than $360 a month to qualify.
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.
What accounts for the geographic differences? States have long had different policies, philosophies and cultures about supporting low-income families, Hahn said.
The racial differences stem from the fact that cash welfare, when it began in the 1800s as a local responsibility, was essentially limited to white widows, she said.
When the federal government took on the role of providing welfare in the 1960s, it established eligibility rules that opened up access to African American families living in poverty.
Over the years, that triggered a growing backlash, as black Americans sought and received assistance. The backlash against expanding welfare rolls prompted the welfare reforms in the 1990s that gave control back to the states.
"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."
African Americans, who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up close to 30 percent of TANF recipients, according to 2015 federal data. Whites, who comprise 62 percent of the U.S. population, make up only 28 percent of TANF recipients.
"African Americans are disproportionately represented among welfare recipients, but that's because they are disproportionately poor," Hahn said. "They are not the majority of welfare recipients."
Hispanics, who are 18 percent of the U.S. population, make up the largest pool of TANF recipients, at 37 percent. The Urban Institute study did not consider the effect of a rapidly expanding Hispanic demographic on state welfare policies -- or how racial disparities impact Hispanics.
Texas, where residents are 61 percent white and 12 percent black, is the second worst state in which to be poor after Louisiana, when it comes to cash assistance. Only 5 out of 100 poor families in Texas receive welfare, of which the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $277.
A family of three must earn less than $401 a month to receive benefits, which can be terminated for the entire family if the head of household does not comply with stringent work requirements.
"Texas has a 'pull yourself up by your bootstrap' approach where they expect people to support themselves," Hahn said.
More generous states gradually reduce benefits if recipients do not follow state work rules, and some continue to support children even if the parent is kicked off the welfare rolls.
There is no evidence that either philosophy leads to a meaningful decrease in poverty, Hahn said, given that TANF benefits are now so low across the board.
The Urban Institute findings found that racial composition had a greater influence on the generosity of a state's welfare program than factors such as economics, political leanings of the state legislature, or average educational attainment of its residents.
A 5 percentage point increase in the African American share of the state population correlates with an average decrease in monthly welfare benefits of more than $25.
"The racial composition of a state's population might directly drive decision making by moderating public perceptions of the causes of welfare dependency and influencing policy makers," the report said. "If voters or policymakers perceive people receiving welfare as different from themselves, they may believe that welfare dependency is caused more by personal shortcomings than by circumstances beyond one's control."
A largely white public, therefore, "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.
"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."