In early June 2015, the Missouri state legislature voted to remove thousands of families, including 6,400 children, from the state’s cash assistance program for the poor. The new law reduces the state lifetime limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families from 60 to 45 months, cuts cash benefits in half for those who do not work, and redirects a significant portion of welfare funds toward programs that encourage marriage and alternatives to abortion.
Why has Missouri made these changes now? Since the U.S. Congress acted in 1996 to change welfare funding rules and give states greater discretion, many states have taken steps similar to Missouri. My research suggests that racial dynamics drive these cutbacks – but not in ways many suppose. Demography and attitudes are insufficient explanations; the political context matters.
Race and Welfare Policymaking
Why have some states imposed welfare restrictions in recent years while others have retained more generous programs? Previous studies reveal a clear pattern: the higher the proportion of African Americans receiving cash welfare benefits, the more likely states are to adopt restrictive welfare policies. But not all racially diverse states have adopted punitive reforms and some predominantly white states have taken very restrictive approaches to welfare. Race clearly influences welfare politics, but how?
To answer this question, I examined the policy decisions that state legislatures made immediately after the 1996 national reforms transformed American anti-poverty policy. That law imposed new time limits, work requirements, and penalties on recipients of welfare benefits. After Congress gave states new flexibility to design their own programs, some states adopted the most generous policies allowed by federal law, while others imposed far more restrictive policies. To understand the decision-making processes better, I closely examined a number of states which had large minority populations at the time.
What I found was surprising: Legislators’ decisions about welfare policy were heavily influenced by the political debates simultaneously raging in their states. When these other debates were rife with racial tensions, legislators enacted punitive welfare reforms. But when coterminous debates were not racialized, lawmakers tended to adopt more generous welfare programs. In other words, lawmakers used restrictive welfare changes as a strategy to appease white voters who felt threatened by other racial conflicts happening in the same period. more...