Economic Security and Safety Net Programs

America's low-income working families are struggling to get by, too often forced to make impossible choices among food, housing, health care, and child care. In addition, their economic well-being can be affected by sudden and unpredictable events such as illness and job loss, as well as periods of economic booms and busts. Our goal is to investigate the challenges that vulnerable households face –whether working or not- and to explore the policies, work supports, and family supports that can help families prosper. 

America's low-income working families are struggling to get by, too often forced to make impossible choices among food, housing, health care, and child care. Government safety nets were reformed in the mid-1990s with the promise that work would pay. But that promise remains unfulfilled for many families. Our goal is to investigate the challenges that vulnerable households face—whether working or not—and explore the policies, work supports, and family supports that can help families prosper.

The economic well-being of low-income families can be affected by sudden and unpredictable events such as illness or job loss. The Great Recession only highlighted the vulnerability of these families. One goal of the Low-Income Working Families initiative is to document the experiences of low-income working families during economic booms and busts and examine the factors that influence the economic security of these families in the changing economic climate.

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?

Young men of color have long experienced lower earnings and higher unemployment compared to young white men. Many factors have contributed to these negative outcomes: persistent discrimination, hiring practices of employers, geographic and social isolation, substandard secondary education, lack of career and postsecondary educational guidance, inadequate career and technical education, and higher incarceration rates. This paper focuses on promising strategies for improving the labor market outcomes of low-income young men of color. It outlines an employment-focused approach to improving economic opportunities and outcomes for these young men, highlighting potential policy, system and institutional reforms as well as program investments.

Expanding Economic Opportunity for Young Men and Boys of Color through Employment and Training

This brief offers strategies for service providers in public or assisted housing communities to develop strong home visiting services for highly distressed families battling challenges such as depression, substance abuse, or domestic violence. It also provides information on one strategy in particular—the SCRIPT model—that gives concrete instructions for better serving families’ mental health and other needs in home visiting programs. The brief also offers insights into how the model’s framework could be adapted to allow local communities to respond to their community’s particular needs, challenges, and contexts.

Addressing Parents’ Mental Health in Home Visiting Services in Public Housing

This paper examines the child care arrangements of mothers who work evenings, nights, or irregular schedules rather than regular daytime hours. Low-income working mothers in nonstandard schedules show greater use of any type of child care than low–income standard-schedule mothers and are more likely to use multiple child care arrangements. Partners are important sources of child care for mothers working nonstandard hours, and single parents rely on other relatives for child care at high rates. Nonstandard-schedule workers need not only child care at irregular hours but also more-flexible daytime care.

Who Minds the Kids When Mom Works a Nonstandard Schedule?

This study of Pittsburgh, supported by The Heinz Endowments, focuses on structural barriers that contribute to differences in African American and white men’s access to economic opportunities, specifically in employment and entrepreneurship. Structural barriers are obstacles that disproportionately affect a certain racial or ethnic group and perpetuate or maintain stark disparities in outcomes. This report summarizes findings from statistical analysis, focus groups, and individual interviews with stakeholders and African American men in Pittsburgh. A separate document, Barriers and Bridges: An Action Plan for Overcoming Obstacles and Unlocking Opportunities for African American Men in Pittsburgh, outlines our recommendations for improving the economic position of these men.

Structural Barriers to Racial Equity in Pittsburgh: Expanding Economic Opportunity for African American Men and Boys

Supported by The Heinz Endowments, the Urban Institute has examined the structural barriers that contribute to differences in African American and white men’s access to economic opportunities in Pittsburgh, specifically in employment and entrepreneurship. This action plan outlines recommendations for community leaders in Pittsburgh to help reduce or eliminate these barriers and enable African American men to improve their economic position. The study findings are summarized in a separate report, Structural Barriers to Racial Equity in Pittsburgh: Expanding Economic Opportunity for African American Men and Boys.

Barriers and Bridges: An Action Plan for Overcoming Obstacles and Unlocking Opportunities for African American Men in Pittsburgh

The federal child tax credit provides a credit of up to $1,000 per child under age 17; the refundable portion of the credit, which is crucial for low-income families, is limited to 15 percent of earnings above a defined threshold. That threshold is set to increase from $3,000 to almost $15,000 after 2017, which will dramatically reduce benefits for the lowest income families and eliminate benefits entirely for almost half of workers in the lowest fifth of the income distribution who have children. This brief analyzes the impact of extending current rules beyond 2017 along with other reforms that tend to benefit higher-income families.

Reforming the Child Tax Credit: How Different Proposals Change Who Benefits

Over time, the American workforce has become more educated and the college-going population has diversified. Today’s students tend to be older and often have young children. About 1 million low-income parents who attend school or training also work. Further, many combine full-time work with full-time school attendance. This brief summarizes this population’s characteristics, how they address these competing demands, and the supports they receive while doing so. The brief suggests how existing federal policy initiatives such as the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Child Care Development Fund can better support working parents in their educational pursuits.

Supporting Parents Who Work and Go to School: A Portrait of Low-Income Students Who Are Employed