Social Impact LIVE: Zach Parolin on U.S. Welfare System & Racial Inequality

September 18, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

CSSW Poverty Center researcher Zach Parolin discusses his groundbreaking work on the role that states play in widening the Black-White child poverty gap through the choices they make in using welfare funds.


Richard Hara: I’m pleased to have here today Dr. Zachary Parolin, who is currently a postdoctoral research scientist at our Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Dr. Parolin’s research focuses on the measurement, causes, and consequences of poverty and social policy  – and social inequality – across the United States and the European Union. In addition to his scholarship, he’s also contribute articles to The Atlantic including one this year that demonstrated how states with large African-American populations are using their welfare funds in ways that are worsening, not alleviating, racial differences in child poverty. He received his PhD in Socioeconomics from the University of Antwerp and also holds an MSC in Comparative Social Policy from Oxford. We’ll be having a discussion for about 20 minutes, and for the last 10 minutes we’ll reserve for questions and answers. So I’m welcoming you to Social Impact LIVE.

Zachary Parolin: Thanks, Richard, thanks for having me on.

Richard Hara: I see from your bio that as an undergraduate you majored in journalism.

Zachary Parolin: Right.

Richard Hara: And I wonder if you could tell me how it is that you went from journalism into academics, and whether you see any connections between your background in journalism and the work that you’re doing now?

Zachary Parolin: It’s a good question. My route to academia has not been so straightforward. In fact, five or six years ago I was working for the Australian Baseball League in Perth, Western Australia, trying to sell baseball tickets to the locals who really just didn’t care at all about the sport of baseball. And so it was a rewarding opportunity, but I learned at that time that I wanted something a little bit more fulfilling. And so when I was doing my undergraduate work studying journalism at the University of Missouri, I was also working with an organization that served at-risk and homeless teenagers and youth in the city of Columbia, Missouri. We were working with these homeless youth to help them finish their GED, or to have access to social programs, to find job applications that they could apply for. And it kind of came back to me that that’s the type of work that I was interested in doing, working to help make life a little bit better for those people who have been dealt with bad hand. And so I decided to enter the social policy world first in Washington, DC, for a couple years. Then decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in the United Kingdom and did a PhD in Belgium and for the last five months, I’m — I’ve been happy to be here with the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia. You asked about the journalism, and I do think there are some similarities some commonalities in the day-to-day life of a journalist and a day-to-day life of an academic. We write a lot, both in journalism and academics. We are trying to find answers to questions that have some societal importance. And then trying to communicate those answers to the general public to inform the public on topics that we think are relevant. And so in that sense, I would say that my journalism degree has not been a total waste of time. There’s been some relevance in helping me to prepare for this life in academia.

Richard Hara: But, so you had some hands-on experience with social service programs early on in your career and hopefully that’s something that informed your perspective about these larger policy issues, so…

Zachary Parolin: Very much so, you know, working with 15- and 16-year-olds who, for one reason or another, you know, have been kicked out of their family homes, don’t have access to stable housing on their own. And then looking at the data to see that this is not just a problem in Columbia, Missouri, where I was living. In fact, the Department of Education estimates that about 1.4 million children and teenagers in the United States in public schools across this country are homeless, broadly defined, whether that’s on the streets or doubling up with other families, et cetera –  but about 1.4 million. And so looking at those numbers, you know, I realized it’s great to do this work on the frontlines. It’s incredibly important. But that — at that point I was also trying to think larger: what policies might be important to get that 1.4 million down to 0, and that’s the type of research I’m trying to do now.

Richard Hara: Okay, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about that research, about your work on poverty. I mean poverty, my understanding or simplistic definition is that people who don’t reach or get beyond a certain income level and so on. So how should we think about poverty?

Zachary Parolin: Yeah, it’s a good question. So there’s a number of ways we can think about it. We can talk about the measurement of poverty. How we conceptualize it, you know, looking at income data and you’re right, that at its core, it’s a shortage of resources relative to some benchmark of needs. And what’s interesting if you look at poverty in the US, and we’ll talk about this more as we go on, that we have incredibly high rates of poverty, and child poverty in particular, relative to other high-income countries across the European Union, relative to Canada and the United Kingdom. And I think the challenge for us as social workers, as policy people, is to really try to understand why that is. And from my research and from the research of others who have been in this field, you can’t get away from the fact that this country does less to invest in its low-income families. It provides less cash support to its low-income families relative to other countries and TANF, which we’ll talk about, is a key example of that.

Richard Hara: Okay. So, so yeah, so let’s get to it. TANF, you know, why isn’t it working the way it should?

Zachary Parolin: Sure, so I guess just to back up first and provide a little bit of context for the viewers who might not be familiar with TANF. It’s called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is the formal name. Many people know it as welfare, and many people conceive of it as a, you know, cash-based social assistance program for low-income families. And a couple important things to know about TANF: It’s introduced in the mid-1990s, it’s part of President Clinton’s plan to end welfare as we know it. And each state, each of the 50 states gets a big chunk of money from the federal government called the block grant to administer this program. And states don’t have to spend this money on cash assistance. In fact, the average state now spends about 22 % of its TANF budget on cash support. The rest of the budget is going towards efforts to influence family formation – so to try to discourage single motherhood – to facilitate employment, maybe providing childcare assistance or transportation assistance. And then there’s a fourth very opaque “other” category which I won’t talk about now. But the problem with TANF, to come back to your question, is that we see some very strong inequities in how states allocate their TANF resources. So in trying to dive into this research, when I started this paper and thinking about why do some states allocate — use their TANF funds to allocate cash assistance more than others? Why are some states spending more of these resources on family formation? It turns out it’s not about politics. It’s not about whether a Republican or Democrat is in charge. It’s not about the number of single parents. It’s not about the rate of poverty in the state’s GDP. It comes back to race – and racial composition in particular. And what you find is that in states with a larger share of black residents, a state is less likely to use those TANF funds on cash assistance for low-income families, more likely to use those funds on efforts to influence family formation. And, of course, these racial inequities and policies then transform into racial inequities and child poverty outcomes, and that’s what this second half of the paper focuses on.

Richard Hara: Okay, so that’s a state-by-state kind of difference.

Zachary Parolin: Exactly, so I can give some examples in some states. Could talk about my home state of Missouri, could talk about state of Georgia where they’re spending roughly 5 to 6 % of their total TANF budget on cash assistance for low-income families. And that’s not because these states don’t have, you know, low levels of poverty, it’s the opposite. But instead they’re using these funds to try to discourage women from — from having children or trying to encourage them to go and find a partner to be part of a two-parent household. And unfortunately, you know, cash assistance is very different from family formation programs. Cash assistance has a very direct effect on poverty outcomes. Family formation programs don’t, and the evidence suggests that they don’t even achieve their intended aims, which is to encourage the formation of two-parent families. So when states are taking away these resources that could be used to directly target low-income families, to directly reduce their economic insecurity and using it for a lot of these other programs, especially when we see these racial inequities in the programs, it leads to racial inequities and child poverty outcomes.

Richard Hara: So –so this is a– I think a somewhat troubling issue, I think, for social workers because, yes, I see the importance of cash assistance and its direct correlation with reducing, you know, rates of poverty and the risk of people falling into poverty. But are you saying that, you know, that for every dollar that — that we take out of cash assistance and put into social service programs that may focus on the family, we’re actually — we’re doing harm to the people we’re trying to help?

Zachary Parolin: That’s not necessarily what I would be saying, but I would say this: that in the current structure of social assistance in the US, states have to choose more or less between cash or investment into these types of services. This is not to say that, you know, these family formation programs or family services are not worth investment into or it’s, you know, it’s certainly worth it to see if they have some efficacy if they are effective. But when we are taking away a fundamental source of poverty alleviation, which is cash assistance, it can be harmful, if that is a substitute rather than a complement, it can indeed be harmful.

Richard Hara: Yeah. And I think in your article you — you note that some of these moneys that are — are being diverted, so to speak, from cash assistance into other kind of spending priorities could be covered by the states through general revenues or other — other kinds of sources of funding?

Zachary Parolin: That’s right, so again if we go down to the State of Georgia for example. Georgia spends about 2/3 of its TANF budget on sort of an obscure range of programs and services that most states might fund using their general revenues. Some examples: foster care assistance, health services for low-income families, but then also some slightly more obscure examples. So in Connecticut there was a program that was — it’s called Compulsive Gambler Assistance focused on gambling addiction. Incredibly important stuff, you know. We should be investing into these. But the question is, again, are we going to take away from that pool of cash assistance that could be going to help low-income families put food on the table and reallocate that money here? And that’s what’s happening at the moment. So again, you know, of course, we need to invest in foster care and so forth, but the challenge is many states are doing this with their general revenues that they collect from their own taxation. Some states are now just using these TANF budgets to fill some of those budget holes.

Richard Hara: Well, I guess at some level this is an indictment of federalism and our entire constitutional system in the United States.

Zachary Parolin: Well, not — I wouldn’t go that far.

Richard Hara: Okay, all right. But, so — but you’re tying this all to race, and you’re saying that this is directly correlated, right, with the %age of black people in a state, right, raises the likelihood that, you know, that money is being diverted from cash assistance into these under — other spending priorities. So — so yeah — so a state like New York, for example, you know is — is the money — I mean where do we sort of sit on that scale, on that continuum?

Zachary Parolin: Sure. So, New York I — I’m afraid to spit out numbers without double-checking that they are accurate.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Zachary Parolin: But New York does a little bit better than most states at spending its TANF budget on cash assistance.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Zachary Parolin: The maximum – maximum benefit levels, so if you are actually receiving TANF assistance, are a little bit higher here relative to many other states. But of course, we also know that if you’re in New York City, the cost of living is also much, much higher than most other localities in the country. You know New York is a tough case that — that I’m sure the state and the city are doing a lot, but you still — you look at the numbers and it’s just hard not to be appalled, the story in the New York Times last year, that found about 1 in every 10 students in New York City public schools experiences some type of homelessness throughout the school year. One of every 10. And it’s hard to hear that and not think that something more should perhaps be done.

Richard Hara: Well, the reason I brought up New York was that I was thinking, okay, so if — if it’s not a function of political, right, partisanship, or that — that doesn’t explain these differences in spending priorities. Then is it possible for to see or cite cases of so-called liberal states, right, with the generous social policy programs who are similarly, because they’ve got a higher proportion of — of African-Americans in their — in their population, moving money into these sort of family formation programs?

Zachary Parolin: Sure. So I guess, I mean, if we talk about success stories or if there are, you know, liberal states doing more, you do see some of that. You know, again, New York State does a little bit more than other states. California spends a much larger share of its TANF budget on cash assistance relative to other states. But here’s the simple fact I would point to, even if we extend this discussion beyond TANF: We recognize that states vary in terms of their social and labor market policies, not only in terms of cash assistance, but in terms of minimum wages, in terms of state supplements to the earned income tax credit, Medicaid expansion, childcare, education, and housing, and so on. Some states are more generous, some states are less generous, and the simple fact is that more often than not the low-income families of color tend to find themselves in the states that have less generous social and labor market policies. Now that’s not to say that race or racism is a cause of all of these state differences. I do find that that’s important with respect to TANF. But when we talk about social outcomes, when we talk about racial differences and child poverty rates, for example, if we believe that policy is important in shaping outcomes, then we have to believe that the state-level differences, and the racial inequities in particular across states in these differences, matter when we talk about racial differences and economic opportunity.

Richard Hara: Okay, so they matter. But are they a primary force you think, or are you arguing that?

Zachary Parolin: Sure, I — you know, I’ve done research on TANF and so I want to be careful, you know, extending too far beyond that and making larger claims. But I think if you look at the evidence, there’s no doubt that inequities in these policies across state lines play a huge role in shaping economic opportunity. Not only today, but if we look historically at housing policy, for example, in the redlining that’s occurred, these are policies that have been put in place that have led to certain segmentation of where people, what types of neighborhoods people grew up in. This, we know as fact, has huge repercussions for chances that a child will go on and get a decent job and earn more than his or her parents. So yes, absolutely these, these policies matter and must be part of our considerations.

Richard Hara: Yeah, and it’s important that we look at policy and perhaps the unintended consequence —

Zachary Parolin: Absolutely.

Richard Hara: — of policy in order to think about what we need to do better in the future.

Zachary Parolin: Absolutely.

Richard Hara: So — and maybe we’ll get back to that point. But I wanted to, again, save some time for questions from our audience, and see that we’ve got one up on the screen now. Can you say more about how family formation programs work?

Zachary Parolin: Sure.

Richard Hara: Do they encourage women to find a new mate or to marry the person they’ve had a child with? Also, does the data show that two-parent families have a lower poverty rate than single-parent families?

Zachary Parolin: Sure, yeah, that’s a really good question. So the family formation programs, they vary by state, of course, but one example is spending on healthy fatherhood initiatives, and this is doing exactly what the person asking the question is describing. Trying to, again, get the father more involved with this family, some programs that are focused more on trying to encourage the mother to maintain the relationship with the father to bring him back into the household. And again, I don’t want to take away from the importance of these types of programs, but the critical question is, one, are they effective? And, two, should we be taking away from that pool of cash assistance to put resources into this? The second part of the question, yes, it is true that on average, a single-parent household, a single mother household, especially, is more likely to live in poverty than a two-parent household. There’s no doubting that. So then the question if we are concerned about this, and if we want to think about policy ramifications to address this is what is the most effective way to do it, and if we look at any other country that has successfully reduced the levels of child poverty, especially among single parents, it’s been through the provision of cash assistance, a family allowance, more generous social assistance. Not to say that we shouldn’t try to, you know, invest into these other programs, but that has to be a fundamental piece of the poverty reduction strategy.

Richard Hara: So, I mean, are you looking at a specific time frame for these policies to have an effect? Or could some people argue that, you know, maybe we need to look at the longe- term benefits and, and maybe the intergenerational transmission, right, of poverty.

Zachary Parolin: That’s — that’s right. So in my research at the moment, I’m — I’m mostly focusing on the years 1996 until today, looking at the scope of when TANF has been around. And so I am mostly, you know, focused on poverty in a given year, looking at annual incomes to see are — is your total household resources above or below the line? There’s been a lot of work on intergenerational mobility as you’ve referred to it, and you find, you know, some of the same patterns that we know if you live up — if you grow up in a more challenged neighborhood, if you go to school and you’re hungry, and having a hard time focusing, if you grew up in a neighborhood where there’s, you know, more poverty, more crime, this is going to have consequences for your ability to go on and lead a decent life. So at the root of this, again, is poverty. It’s economic insecurity. And so we come back to this critical question of what policies are effective in tackling that. And, again, you know, it’s not to say that there aren’t a 100 different solutions we should test but cash assistance, I think, must be part of that answer.

Richard Hara: All right, so — so, what’s the fix? What would you suggest in terms of, you know, how we might adjust TANF or do we need other kinds of policies to address poverty in the United States?

Zachary Parolin: Yeah. So a couple different solutions, one, you know, if we’re talking about TANF and cash assistance. One is just to say it’s not working as intended, let’s more or less scrap it and replace it with a centralized family allowance or some sort of monthly allotment of cash support for families, or low-income families in particular, that the federal government administers and that is fair across states and fair with respect to race and ethnicity. That’s one solution. Another solution could be just to more heavily regulate TANF to say that it’s ridiculous in a state where there’s high poverty rates, and only 6% of this TANF budget is going to cash assistance, putting in some minimum standards there to ensure that states are doing a little bit more to address poverty in their communities.

Richard Hara: Okay. Has that been floated at the legislative level or —

Zachary Parolin: Yes, so there is proposal in Congress right now for a child allowance. Several of my colleagues at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy here have actually simulated the potential poverty reduction effects of a child allowance. So I would encourage you to check out our website as well for more information on that.

Richard Hara: Great.

Zachary Parolin: But it is certainly in discussion at the moment.

Richard Hara: Okay, wonderful. Let’s see, I think there’s another question. Would you say that what’s going on with welfare is an unintended consequence of former President Clinton’s attempt to “end welfare as we know it”? Why did the reformers of that era think that states would be the best to administer welfare? You know, what were they thinking?

Zachary Parolin: That’s — that’s a good question, a loaded question. You know that some of the idea at the time was that state governments are closer to the people, differences in state policies foster a idea of experimentation which we can then use evidence to figure out which states are doing better than others to address the levels of poverty. I — I would hope that what we see now is certainly an unintended consequence of the welfare reform. I can’t imagine that anyone working on the law at the time would look at what’s going on now and say that this was intended. Again, 22% or something around there is the average share of a state TANF budget that goes to cash support. We — it’s — it’s declining year after year after year. More and more TANF funds being spent on this obscure range of programs and services that, again, most states would otherwise fund using their general revenues. And so, you know, you have to kind of stop and ask yourself who is this program benefiting? Is it benefiting the low-income families who are need of some kind of support to help put food on the table? Or is it benefiting, you know, state governments because they have a new collection of funds that they can tap into to make sure they’re not spending their other general revenues on these programs instead.

Richard Hara: Okay. Well, yeah, I can’t help but think that, I mean, as much as we want to take an evidence-based approach to policy and so on, we’re still pulled by political currents. And I think it’s as much a conversation about what people perceive to be the moral values inherent in our programs, that — that are also driving the debate, so.

Zachary Parolin: Yeah, I think that’s undeniably true. Values and perceptions of — of personal responsibility, I mean, this has long pervaded the American spirit.

Richard Hara: Right.

Zachary Parolin: But, again, you know, you have to look at the data and see why is it that so many people are resistant to more cash assistance spending? And you can’t get away from the fact that racialized perceptions of who is receiving the social assistance benefits are a strong part of the story. So, of course, we all advocate for personal responsibility and you know, taking ownership of your situation. But we also need to recognize that, you know, sometimes it’s one strike and you’re out. One medical emergency, one job loss, and there’s nothing left for you, when you’re — when you’re there. What can we as a society do, what — what can the state do to provide some kind of baseline support?

Richard Hara: Right, and it shouldn’t be either/or, and I think that as social workers, I mean, we look to the family as — as a source of support, right, as a strength that needs to be built upon, right? So why can’t we combine the two approaches, right?

Zachary Parolin: Sure.

Richard Hara: So, and takes us to our, I think, last question: Is there a role for social workers in this issue? What can social workers do to make sure TANF funds are properly used in their states?

Zachary Parolin: It’s a great question. I don’t have a great answer for it, but I’ll do my best. You know, social workers are very much on the frontline. They’re very much working with a lot of these individuals who are perhaps applying for cash support, and so I guess one basic thing… Social workers already know this. But it’s helpful just for low-income families to know that these programs exist. There’s some great ethnographic research from Kathy Edin and Luke Shaefer, who find that a lot of low-income families just don’t even know that the program exists anymore. They think that cash assistance is gone and dead. And, you know, sadly that’s almost accurate, but it’s not true. I mean, many of these families could, if they knew about it, and maybe had a little support in navigating the paperwork and the bureaucracy involved, could have access to social assistance. So social workers, you know, again, know that and are on the front line of that issue. What can they do to make sure TANF funds are being used properly? Yeah, that’s — that’s the challenge for all of us, I guess. And I don’t have a great answer other than doing what you find appropriate to engage with policymakers, to engage with state legislature, to engage with the governor in your state, and to try to express your concerns one way or another, and let the state know that it’s important for you to see that this program is being used as it was originally intended, and that’s to reduce levels of poverty in the United States.

Richard Hara: Okay, that sounds like a great program for all of us to follow. So — so thank you.

Zachary Parolin: Thank you, Richard.

Richard Hara: Yeah. Well, that concludes today’s episode. We’ll be joined next week by Sophie Leveque, the School of Social Work Librarian to discuss her work with the #DisruptWikipedia campaign. So until then, thanks very much. Goodbye.