Today I ran across a great article from The Atlantic about racism and the American welfare system. The author’s point is that the individual states are in control of which of their residents receive welfare benefits (called TANF—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and those with substantial non-white populations tend to be more stingy with them. A study by the Urban Institute demonstrates that states with whiter populations are far more generous in distributing TANF assistance to their poverty-stricken residents than are states with sizeable black populations. The examples specifically cited in the article are:

  • Vermont, which assists 78% of families in poverty
  • Oregon, which assists 46% of families in poverty
  • Louisiana, which assists 4% of families in poverty
  • Arkansas, which assists 7% of families in poverty

The disparity here is disturbing, isn’t it? The whiter Northern states demonstrate a much stronger willingness to help the poor than their Southern, less-white counterparts.

The Urban Institute and The Atlantic would have us believe that it’s a simple matter of Southern states applying their TANF dollars in racially discriminatory ways. And of course, that is the ultimate result. But there’s some information left out of the equation—information about overall levels of poverty within these states, the proportion of non-white persons in the states’ populations, and the amount of TANF dollars available to the states. Without this important contextual information, the situation looks like cut-and-dried racism when it might be much more complicated.

According to the website of PovertyUSA, a Catholic non-profit that fights poverty, Arkansas and Louisiana are two of the three poorest states in the country. 19.6% of all Louisianans fall below the poverty line, as do 19.1% of Arkansans. By contrast, Vermont has a poverty rate of 10.2%, and Oregon one of 15.4%. Some of the problem here, then, is that the Southern states used as examples are incredibly poor, even for the South. A higher proportion of their populations are “needy” and should theoretically qualify for assistance, so they have to be more restrictive in how they distribute TANF benefits. That does not account for all of the difference, but it does account for some of it.

One of the key concepts within the article from The Atlantic is racial solidarity: that white people are more likely to spend money helping other white people. The photo heading for the article, which features LBJ plugging the Great Society campaign by visiting a poor white coalminer, says it all. There is certainly some truth to this. Modern welfare states, particularly those of Northern Europe, rely heavily upon ethnic solidarity among their homogeneous citizenry to tax at the high rates necessary to fund their public services. Their governments currently face the challenge of continuing their welfare states in the face of immigration from the Middle East, which has been eroding ethnic solidarity in places like Sweden. In the same way, a white face surely made the Great Society an easier sell in 1960s America.

But once again, contextual information undermines this argument in The Atlantic and from the Urban Institute. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website, both Arkansas and Oregon have a white population of 74%. To make matters more interesting, both states have a racial/ethnic minority of 15%; in Arkansas, that minority is black, but in Oregon is it Hispanic. Thus, according to the solidarity theory suggested by The Atlantic, Oregon should be distributing TANF akin to the way Arkansas does (or vice versa). And yet this does not seem to be what is happening. Do white Oregonians experience stronger racial solidarity than white Arkansans—is that why they assist so many more poor families? Do white majorities respond differently to Hispanic minorities than they do to African American minorities? Or do black Arkansans comprise a disproportionate amount of their state’s poor? I don’t have answers to these questions. But the dynamics of race and TANF do seem to be more complicated than they initially appeared.

In looking into this topic, I found an old article from Brookings which spelled out how states receive their TANF money from the federal government. Since 1996, the federal government has spent $16.5 billion annually on TANF in the form of block grants given to the states. The amount has not been adjusted for inflation—ever. States spend money on the poor within their borders, and the federal government matches their contributions from the overall TANF amount of $16.5 billion. States with higher poverty rates or facing dramatic population increases are supposed to receive extra money. This sounds great and all, but it is pinned to expenditures from 1994! So my question is: are the states with higher poverty rates receiving proportionally higher amounts of TANF funding from the federal government? I was not able to find an answer to that question.

Another consideration regarding TANF funding is the authority of the states to determine how to spend it. Since 1996, there has been a nationwide trend away from distributing TANF as cash payments to needy families. An article from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that in 1996, 68% of impoverished American families received assistance, but only 26% received any in 2013. Part of this problem is the stagnant amount of TANF funding available, despite a rising population and inflation. Another part of it is that states often choose to use TANF money for things like job training programs and employment assistance offices. Thus millions of TANF dollars for each state get eaten up in running offices and hiring government workers rather than assistance checks distributed to needy families. There is nothing wrong with this, especially if these efforts have a successful track record, though I don’t know that that’s the case.

I’ll wrap up by saying that this was a well-done article from The Atlantic, and definitely worth reading. The author interviewed historian Jennifer Mittelstadt, whose book The Rise of the Military Welfare State is great. There was some excellent historical context about the Great Society and the trajectory of welfare reform in the latter-twentieth century. That being said, I do think it is important to be judicious in claiming racism as the cause of a particular phenomenon. It is important to lay out sufficient evidence, lest opponents disregard the long-term effects of our nation’s racially fraught past altogether. I have no doubt that institutional racism is part of the American welfare system, though exactly what role it plays remains unclear.