New Study: Through Welfare, States Are Widening Black-White Child Poverty Gap
A poverty studies scholar uncovers racial bias in choices states make in the use and distribution of federal assistance benefits.
“What do a Christian overnight camp, abstinence-only sex education, and pro-marriage advertisements all have in common?” asks Zach Parolin, post-doctoral researcher at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, in a June 13 article for The Atlantic. “They’ve all been funded with money that used to provide cash assistance to low-income families.”
In the article Parolin addresses the topic of states administering federal funds obtained through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—what many people refer to as “welfare.” As part of then President Clinton’s campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” TANF replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in 1996. Among other changes, it created a new structure whereby the federal government hands out assistance to states through so-called block grants, giving states the discretion to use the funds for cash assistance or something else entirely.
According to Parolin’s analysis, the choices many states are making on how to use and distribute TANF funds are “unmistakably correlated with race.” While he stops short of accusing certain states of intentionally employing racially motivated means for distributing their welfare funds, his research confirms that states with larger proportions of Black residents are more likely to direct funds away from direct cash assistance and toward programming that forwards the agenda of two-parent families and abstinence-only sex education.
The result, Parolin posits, is that funds intended to help fight poverty are being used in ways that increase the racial poverty divide. “These racial inequities in states’ use of TANF funds turn out to have important consequences for racial differences in child poverty. I find, for example, that closing the racial differences in states’ use of TANF funds would narrow the black-white child-poverty gap by up to 15 percent.”
Parolin’s Atlantic article follows the publication of a paper reporting his study findings, in the May Socio-Economic Review. Parolin’s journal article notes that Black children are twice as likely as White children to live in poverty, a statistic that has remained unchanged since the 1960s, when reliable data on the subject first became available. It goes on to propose actionable remedies to TANF to help close that gap.
“Installing more stringent accountability mechanisms on the types of programs toward which states can allocate TANF funds, or instituting minimum standards of cash assistance provision, are two of many possible steps toward smoothing the racial inequities present in the TANF program,” Parolin concludes.
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