Low benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are rooted in historical racism, especially in the South, where cash assistance has been consistently weaker since policymakers created TANF’s predecessor nearly a century ago. The result is now a program that does not cover the basic needs of low-income families during times of joblessness, illness, or disability.
Low TANF benefits disproportionately affect what’s available to Black children, 55 percent of whom now live in a state with benefit levels at or below 20 percent of the poverty line. But these low benefits also affect Latinx and white children: 41 percent of Latinx children and 40 percent of white children live in these low-benefit states.
While benefits have declined in all states, the decline has been most dramatic in the South. About 3 million Black children (31 percent of the national total) live in four southern states — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — that have benefits at or below 17 percent of the poverty line for a family of three, or about $308 a month. Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have not increased benefits since the early 1990s, and benefits in Texas remain extremely low despite small annual increases since 2010.
Federal and state policies have driven the geographic disparity in benefit levels. States have had the power to set benefits since policymakers created TANF’s predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), in 1935. At the time, a crucial bloc of Southern members of Congress successfully lobbied for substantial state and local control over AFDC to guard against the perceived threat that an expanded federal government posed to the South’s white supremacist socioeconomic order, which was built upon the cheap labor of vulnerable Black Southerners.
In AFDC’s early years, some states deliberately provided lower benefits to Black families, if they accepted their application for aid at all. Some Southern states installed “farm policies” that lowered or cut off benefits during planting or harvesting seasons to coerce Black parents and children as young as 7 to work in the fields for extremely low wages. By 1958, 20 states (15 of them Southern) had implemented “maximum family grants” — a ceiling set irrespective of family size — as another strategy to keep benefits low.
Despite victories by the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) and legal aid organizations against AFDC’s restrictive eligibility policies in the 1960s and ‘70s, benefit levels remained under states’ control with no federal regulation. In 1970, the median maximum AFDC benefit for a family of three in the 16 Southern states (as defined by the Census Bureau) was 46 percent of the federal poverty line, compared to 85 percent for non-Southern states.
Fifty years later, the median maximum TANF benefit for a family of three in the South had fallen to 16 percent of poverty, compared to 30 percent for non-Southern states. Maryland and Virginia are now the only Southern states with benefits above 20 percent of poverty; benefits in Mississippi, which were already a mere 22 percent of poverty in 1970, have fallen to just 9 percent in 2020. (See below for an interactive map.)
States’ flexibility to set benefits without meeting any federal requirements has enabled them to continue their past racist policies and keep benefits extremely low. Since 1996, benefits have fallen by 20 percent or more in 33 states — affecting not just Black families facing a crisis but any family with such struggles. To make TANF benefits more adequate, the federal government and the states should invest more funds in cash assistance and establish mechanisms to prevent benefits from eroding in the future.
Note: Policymakers replaced AFDC with TANF in 1996. Calculations are based on the maximum AFDC/TANF benefit available to a family of three.
Source: 2020 Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines. Prior to 1982, poverty guidelines were published by the Office of Economic Opportunity. TANF benefits collected by CBPP from various sources, including HHS, University of Kentucky Poverty Research Center, and Urban Institute Welfare Rules Database.