BEYOND THE NUMBERS
As we’ve noted, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have increased cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for this year or next. Nevertheless, TANF benefits will still be at or below 60 percent of the poverty line in every state, as our latest report shows. Furthermore, despite these increases, black families are likelier than white families to live in states with historically low benefit levels, leaving them with far less than they need to meet their basic needs.
Under TANF, states have great flexibility in how much they provide in direct financial assistance to poor families. Part of federal policymakers’ rationale for providing that flexibility was that states know better how to support their residents in need. But, in fact, states with some of the lowest benefits under TANF’s predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), now do less than they did under AFDC to lift a family out of poverty. These tend to be the states where many black families live.
- Black people are likelier than white people to live in the states with the lowest TANF benefits. Fifty-three percent of the nation’s black people live in a state with benefits at or below 20 percent of the poverty line. Only 39 percent of white people live in these same states. In 1996, all of these states were among those with the lowest benefit levels. Since then, their benefits as share of the poverty line have fallen, and many of them haven’t increased benefits in recent years.
- TANF benefits do much less to cover housing costs in states where black families are likelier to live. Forty-eight percent of black people live in states with benefits that cover less than a third of housing costs for a modest two-bedroom apartment. Only 30 percent of white people live in those states.
- Black families are disproportionally affected even when one considers SNAP (food stamp) and TANF benefits combined. Fifty-three percent of black people live in states where TANF benefits are so low that even with the addition of SNAP benefits, they remain below half of the poverty line. In comparison, only 39 percent of white people live in those states.
Moreover, black families are likelier to live in states with less access to TANF’s direct financial assistance and lower spending on basic assistance (mainly direct financial assistance to families). (See the appendix in our report for state-specific details.)
- About 39 percent of black people live in states in which 10 or fewer families receive TANF cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty (known as the TANF-to-poverty ratio), compared to 28 percent of white people.
- Thirty-one percent of black people live in states that spend 10 percent or less of their TANF funds on basic assistance, while only 25 percent of white people do.
- About 61 percent of black people and 48 percent of white people live in states that perform poorly on at least one of the following indicators: benefit levels at or below 20 percent of the poverty line, a TANF-to-poverty ratio of 10 or less, and spending 10 percent or less of TANF funds on basic assistance.
- Seven states — Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas — perform poorly across all three of these TANF indicators (see graphic). Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of black people live in these states, while 17 percent of white people do.
These findings represent a troubling reality. Black families already face tougher labor market prospects due to structural racism and employment discrimination, and those that live in these states have limited access to critical financial assistance when they face a crisis. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence shows that economic security programs, like TANF financial assistance, can improve children’s long-term outcomes. That means that nationally, a black child in poverty has access to fewer resources than a white child in poverty, putting poor black children at greater risk of poor outcomes.
Every state — particularly those with the weakest TANF programs — must do more to support all poor families in the short term and to help bolster children’s long-term outcomes. That means increasing basic assistance spending, access to TANF cash assistance, and benefits.