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TANF Provisions in House Republican Bill Could Increase Families’ Risk of Child Welfare Involvement

The House Republican debt-ceiling-and-cuts bill would put more families at risk of involvement with the child welfare system by jeopardizing cash assistance for 540,000 families with very low incomes, which include nearly 1 million children. The loss of cash assistance — such as the aid the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides to these families — can lead to many undesirable outcomes, including higher rates of poverty, and numerous studies have linked it with increased risk of families’ involvement in the child welfare system.

Children in families with very low incomes are disproportionately represented in child welfare cases. That’s due in part to the fact that they don’t have enough money to meet basic needs. Poverty isn’t supposed to be a reason for reporting child welfare cases, but when children lack food, are often sick, or repeatedly act out (which may be due to hunger, lack of sleep due to homelessness, etc.), it can attract child welfare agencies’ attention.

A variety of reasons can lead to child welfare system involvement, some of which we discuss below.

Policies that take cash assistance away for not meeting a work requirement have been linked to greater hardship and higher risk that the family will become involved in the child welfare system. One study found that substantiated child neglect reports rose by 23.3 percent in states that implemented a policy taking the whole family’s cash aid away for not meeting a work requirement.

Symptoms of material hardship can be used as the basis for investigating maltreatment and removing children from their homes, rather than reasons to give families access to economic supports to help stabilize their circumstances and keep children in their own homes. A study cited by Chapin Hall, a research and policy center that focuses on child welfare and family well-being at the University of Chicago, found that if families with low incomes experience at least one form of material hardship, there is a three times higher likelihood of a neglect investigation compared to a similar family that does not experience material hardship.

Material hardship adds to parental stress and is often overlooked as a risk factor for maltreatment and neglect. A National Institutes of Health study found that in households in which caregivers reported high parenting stress, economic hardship was the most prevalent adverse childhood experience, a factor that can predispose children to certain negative outcomes later in life. The stress of working multiple jobs or being unable to pay rent or buy food taxes caregivers even more. Providing cash to parents can help diminish this and thus, prevent incidences and reports of neglect.

Families of color are disproportionately subjected to child welfare system involvement due to being historically subjected to discriminative policies in government programs, bias among child welfare case workers, and experiencing persistent harm at the intersection of TANF and the child welfare system. The anti-Black racism embedded in such policies can be traced back to slavery and continues through to today, where research consistently finds that Black and Latinx TANF participants are likelier to have their cash assistance taken away for not meeting a work requirement than white people. Therefore, perpetuating these policies would likely, and unnecessarily, worsen this disparity.

And child welfare involvement can cause negative outcomes for kids, which is especially egregious if children are unnecessarily exposed to the child welfare system. Child welfare investigations can be traumatizing for children; the trauma is exacerbated if agencies remove them from their homes, creating deep psychological impacts. This can put children at higher risk of experiencing long-lasting mental health problems, as well as clinically significant emotional and behavioral problems for which they may have little to no support because of limited collaboration between child welfare and mental health systems.

Poverty should never be why a family becomes involved in the child welfare system. Child welfare agencies should focus on cases of neglect, and, rather than implement policies that threaten families and children who are already struggling financially and emotionally, should partner with TANF agencies to ensure that families can receive necessary cash assistance.

By restricting state flexibility and making already rigid work requirements more stringent, the House Republican bill’s TANF provisions could leave states with little option but to take away cash assistance from families with the lowest incomes, putting more families at risk of poverty and negative outcomes like child welfare system involvement. Instead, policymakers should prioritize the well-being of all families, reducing poverty, and decreasing child welfare involvement. Families need more access to resources like TANF, not less.

Policy Analyst and Intern Coordinator