State Policy and Low Income Families

Some state policies affect children and families through impacts on family economic well-being and household composition. The Low-Income Working Families project often examines state policies to determine possible impacts and to suggest potential solutions across policy areas ranging from the safety net to incarceration.

Although the federal government sets general policy and guidelines for most safety net and social service programs, states have an important role to play in establishing specific policies around eligibility and providing additional funding for social support efforts. The state role has become increasingly important in the past 20 years, and variations across states mean that families with children in some states will have access to fewer public resources than children in other states.  Evidence indicates these variations may have more negative impacts on children of color because these children are concentrated in less generous states. 

In other policy areas, states have sole or primary authority, which can also link family and child welfare to the state where they live. Low-Income Working Families seeks to inform development and implementation of some of these policies as well.

Main take-aways

  • Only a small share of families living in poverty receive cash assistance, and that share has fallen dramatically in the last 20 years.
  • The cash support available to families and the conditions under which they can receive it largely depend on where they live.
  • State TANF policy decisions are significantly related to race. States with larger African American populations, all else equal, have less generous and more restrictive TANF policies.

When people think about welfare, they often imagine government assistance—often cash—for people living in poverty.

The main government program associated with cash welfare is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to low-income families with children (childless adults are not eligible). But most low-income families do not receive cash assistance. In 2014, only 23 families in poverty received assistance for every 100 such families nationwide. And in an average month in 2016, about 1 percent of the total population received TANF cash assistance.

The cash support available to families and the conditions under which they can receive it largely depend on where they live. TANF gives states the flexibility to determine the mission, design, and benefits of their programs, and states are under no legal obligation to provide cash assistance to families living in poverty. Consequently, state TANF policies vary widely in their generosity (e.g., the maximum monthly benefits families can receive and the assets they can keep), restrictiveness (e.g., work requirements families must meet to receive benefits and sanctions for not meeting them), and how long a family can receive assistance.

Looking at what drives variation in state TANF programs, we considered the following questions: Do states with more generous TANF benefits have less restrictive requirements and benefit duration? Or do states with more generous benefits counterbalance that generosity by having more restrictive requirements and benefit duration? We also observed the effects of state differences on selected racial groups.

We conclude with our overarching observations and suggestions for further research, which are based on the following findings:

  • State decisionmaking is not the result of trade-offs between different dimensions of TANF policymaking: generosity, restrictiveness, and duration. States that are more generous are less restrictive and allow families to receive benefits longer.
  • State TANF policy decisions are significantly related to race. A state with a relatively large African American population is more likely to have less generous, more restrictive TANF policies (except for asset limit policies). States with larger African American populations also tend to have less generous maximum benefits and income eligibility limits and harsher initial sanctions, all else equal. Further research should explore the relationships between TANF policy decisions and other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Although state TANF policies are race neutral in that everyone is subject to the same policies, the policies’ effects are not. Most Americans live in states with less generous maximum benefits, more restrictive behavioral requirements, and shorter time limits. But African American people are disproportionately concentrated in these low-ranking states. Additional analyses of the implications of state policy choices for other racial and ethnic groups are warranted.
  • Aside from race, the patterns in state TANF policy decisionmaking are less clear. States with similar demographic, economic, and political contexts make different TANF policy decisions. State median income, the share of the adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree, and the share of Democrats in the state legislature are associated with stricter TANF policies on some dimensions but not others.

Race and ethnicity shape our modern social welfare system. Other studies have shown that local policymaking and caseworkers are subject to racial biases that affect welfare recipients’ experiences. Furthermore, racial differences have been observed in several aspects of TANF, including sanctions, receipt of work support services such as child care, and access to education and training.

As Congress and state legislatures consider refining TANF and other supports for low-income families, they should understand the effects of the previous welfare reform. States gained autonomy and flexibility in how to structure and deliver TANF benefits, but many families in need are worse off as a result. Any public policy or change in policy will involve trade-offs, but Americans and their elected leaders must fully understand the consequences of the choices and trade-offs.

Why Does Cash Welfare Depend on Where You Live?

From 2006 to 2013, the number of children under age 18 with at least one immigrant parent increased from 15.7 to 17.6 million. They account for nearly one-quarter of all children in the United States. This brief highlights national, state, and local information using data from the 2012 and 2013 American Community Surveys.

Children of Immigrants: 2013 State Trends Update

Relationships between children and their parents are the foundation on which children learn how to form and sustain healthy relationships. Disrupting those relationships—by losing a parent to incarceration, for example—can have long-term effects on children and may lead to antisocial behavior, poor school performance, and physical and mental health problems.

Recent estimates show that 2.7 million US children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children—7 percent of all US children—have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. African American children and children from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to experience parental incarceration.

To mitigate the risks of parental incarceration for children, some correctional agencies offer parent-child visits in prisons or jails. There are several types of parent-child visits, but many experts believe contact visits, where the child and parent can physically interact, are the most helpful in safeguarding against risk and forging stronger bonds between parents and children.

Although some evidence suggests visiting practices can lessen the trauma associated with parental incarceration, the full effects of visiting remain understudied. Our goal was to help inform researchers and practitioners about what is known about visiting practices, describe key components of visiting practices, and offer recommendations for practice and research.

Recommendations for practice

We identified several recommendations for facilitating parent-child visits. Although more visiting opportunities are needed in correctional facilities, we must also improve how visits are executed.

  • Facilities should offer more opportunities for parent-child visits, especially contact visits. Because parent-child visiting can result in positive outcomes, experts we interviewed cited the need to offer contact visits more frequently in jails and prisons and to make these visits accessible to more parents.
  • Programs should offer more support to children and caregivers. The support offered to children and caregivers before, during, and after visits is incomplete. Experts urged programs to offer more therapeutic support for family members and material support, such as transportation assistance and child care.
  • Listen to incarcerated parents and their families about their needs and what services they find helpful. Programs should consider interviewing family members and tailoring their services accordingly. But experts noted that visits can be improved by providing professional health or psychological resources during visits.
  • Practitioners and correctional agencies should provide ongoing staff training. Correctional staff members should be trained to appropriately communicate and engage with incarcerated parents, their children, and the children’s caregivers. Program staff members should also be trained to interact with children in an age-appropriate manner.
  • Practitioners and correctional agencies should understand how families function and work with families experiencing trauma and stress. Staff members should be trained in alternative interventions. All families are different and experience different levels of dysfunction, so programs should understand that visits may not always be the best intervention for families.
  • Practitioners should engage with research and evidence to inform the continuous quality improvement of parent-child visits. This can be done by reading the literature on parent-child visits and through program evaluations or assessments. Additionally, programs should always be improving data collection and evaluation efforts to better document outcomes.

Recommendations for research

We also proposed the following research goals to expand the knowledge base on parent-child visiting practices in prisons and jails.

  • Research the prevalence of and variance in visiting practices. The field would benefit from a clearer working definition of parent-child visits, including the components that make up a visit. Future research should assess parent-child visiting practices in all 50 states to document the prevalence of different visiting methods.
  • Examine features of parent-child visits and evaluate their impacts. Studies on visiting practices are small and relatively unrelated, and few empirical studies identify the features that make visits effective. More research is needed on different visiting approaches’ effects on parent and child outcomes before carrying out interventions.
  • Generate new knowledge to show the measurable impact of parental incarceration on children’s development, school achievement, and adult success. Factors such as the child’s age and gender, the quality of the parent-child relationship before incarceration, the presence of a supportive caregiver, and the stability and quality of the child’s support network play a role in how incarceration affects children. More research is needed to account for these and other influential factors that may exacerbate separation effects or buffer children from stress associated with parental incarceration.
  • Develop additional measures and improve data collection. Because data collection is difficult, more evaluation studies are needed to build the evidence base. The field would also benefit from developing additional measurements, such as an observational tool to measure the quality of parent-child interactions.
  • Strengthen relationships between practitioners and researchers. Securing practitioner and correctional staff buy-in will help researchers design effective studies that produce useful information for the field. Research findings should be disseminated more broadly and strategically to policymakers and practitioners.

Parent-Child Visiting Practices in Prisons and Jails

For children to thrive and reach their full potential, they need adequate food and shelter, high-quality health care and education, safe environments, and supportive parents and families. Though families play a key role in meeting children’s needs, society also provides resources and services to support children’s healthy development.

Through their funding of public schools, health systems, and social services, state and local governments provide resources and services to support children’s healthy development. Although not all investments translate directly into better child outcomes, a wide disparity in public investments raises concerns about whether children from low-spending states are on equal footing when pursuing the American Dream.

How much do states differ in spending on children?

State spending on children varies widely, with Vermont spending nearly three times as much on children as Utah. States spending $10,000 or more are generally concentrated in the Northeast, while many states spending $7,000 or less are found in the South and West.

Differences in education allocations drive most of the spending differences on children. Though children’s outcomes are affected by multiple factors, health and education outcomes tend to be higher in states with higher spending levels.

Do children of color tend to live in low-spending states?

Latino and American Indian children are more likely than non-Latino white and black children to live in low-spending states. Half of American Indian/Alaska Native children live in Arizona, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and other states spending less than $7,000 per child.

Similarly, 47 percent of Latino children live in low-spending states, with particular concentrations in California and Florida. Only 28 percent of non-Latino white children and 30 percent of black children live in states spending less than $7,000 per child.



How will growth in child populations affect future spending?

Child populations are projected to grow in southern and western states such as Florida and Texas that spend less per child and to decline in states such as New York and Ohio that spend more. 

It is uncertain whether states that have traditionally spent low amounts per child will boost spending on children to keep up with population growth. If they do not, spending per child will fall in many states, widening the gap between high-spending and low-spending states and heightening concerns about child outcomes.

Policy Implications

  • Low-spending states with increasing child populations may face a fiscal and political challenge of increasing spending on children to keep up with population growth. Although growth in child populations will be accompanied by growth in the adult parent populations (voters and income-earning workers who help support state spending policies), it still may be challenging for these states to increase spending to keep up with population growth.
  • The federal government also could respond to shifts in child populations and disparities in state spending on children. The federal government already plays some role in redistributing resources across states. It spent about $4,500 per child in 2013, and its share of spending on children rose during the Great Recession. But we do not know how average federal spending per child varies across states.
  • We should avoid block grants, which lock in current spending patterns at the expense of children in states experiencing population growth. If converted to federal block grants with fixed funding amounts to each state regardless of the number of children, federal spending per child for federal entitlement programs (e.g., Medicaid) would decline in the 35 states with increasing child populations, while those states may be facing declines in the state spending per child.
  • Should we consider increasing federal spending on children to offset declines in state and local spending and to target federal resources on states with high population growth or low spending on children? Doing so would run counter to the long history of relying on state and local investment in children and public education. We might consider approaches that maintain control of public education at the state and local level while providing less-affluent states with more shared federal and state tax revenue or develop new financing mechanisms for joint federal-state programs.

Before considering whether state and federal policymakers should do more to equalize spending on children across states, we have to address basic assumptions within the status quo. For example, we take it for granted that seniors in various states generally receive the same minimum retirement benefit and have the same access to Medicare. If we expect equity for seniors living in different states, why are we so accepting of large differences in state spending on children?

It may be hard to reach agreement on policy solutions to the disparities in public spending on children, but the first step is to acknowledge the problem.

Unequal Playing Field?