News Release

Some state welfare policies linked to more foster care

Restrictions on TANF participation hurt children, study suggests

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Ohio State University

States that restricted access to federal welfare benefits had higher numbers of child neglect victims and more children who were placed in foster care, a new national study found.


About 29,000 fewer children may have entered foster care during the 12 years of the study if states had made it easier for low-income families to receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the findings suggest.


“The relatively small amount of income provided through TANF may be enough to help prevent some child maltreatment and result in fewer kids being placed into foster care,” said Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, co-author of the study and professor of social work at The Ohio State University.


Johnson-Motoyama conducted the study with Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas. Their results were published today (Dec. 5, 2022) in the journal Health Affairs.


The study is thought to be the first to analyze how state TANF policies are associated with child maltreatment and foster care placement on a national level since the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act was passed. The study is also one of the first to examine how changes in state TANF policies over time affected child protective services involvement and foster care placement.


The TANF program, established in 1996, was a major reform of the U.S. welfare system.  It is a block grant program that gives states up to $16.5 billion a year to provide assistance for needy families.


“States have a lot of discretion in how they use the block grants for TANF and that allowed us to see how differences between states – and changes in states over time – were linked to child protective services involvement and foster care,” Johnson-Motoyama said.


TANF benefits vary wildly because of the discretion states are given. Monthly cash payments for a family of three ranged from $170 in Mississippi to $923 in Alaska in 2016.


The researchers examined the link between TANF policies and child protective services involvement and foster care placements over time and among all 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) from 2004 to 2016.


They looked specifically at how six different restrictions on TANF benefits implemented by various states affected how many low-income people participated in TANF in those states and links between changes in participation and child welfare system outcomes.


Some of the restrictions included work requirements for mothers of children less than a year old, and cutting off benefits before the five years allowed by the federal government.


Results showed that each additional TANF policy that restricted access to benefits was linked to 13% fewer families participating in the TANF program.


And fewer participating families had a big impact, the study found.  One analysis in the study showed that restrictions on TANF access were associated with 44 additional neglect victims per 100,000 child population and 22 additional children per 100,000 placed in foster care.


And these results were found after the researchers took into account a variety of other factors that could be related to child protective services involvement and foster care placement. In addition, the researchers did checks to see if social safety-net caseloads, the U.S opioid epidemic or the number of women in prisons changed the overall results of their study – and they did not.


This study can’t answer why less restrictive TANF benefits were linked to fewer cases of child maltreatment, Johnson-Motoyama said.  But previous research provides possible explanations.


“Other studies have demonstrated how economic instability and simply not having enough resources can cascade into a number of different problems for families that affect their health, housing stability, relationships, and general well-being,” she said.


“We know that when families have reliable income, some security, they have less stress, better mental health, and they make different choices for themselves and for their families.  That may help prevent involvement in the child protection system and make it less likely for children to be placed in foster care.”


In the end, helping more families access TANF benefits may actually save states money, Johnson-Motoyama explained.  As of 2016, monthly foster care payments ranged from a low of $250 in some states to more than $1,000.  And these payments represent only a portion of the cost of placing children in out-of-home care.


“Foster care is extremely expensive, and it is a much better value for states to prevent these placements when it is possible. That’s how TANF can help,” she said.


Johnson-Motoyama noted the study’s finding that about 29,000 fewer children would have ended up in foster care if states were less restrictive in offering TANF benefits.


“That’s about 29,000 children who might have a different life trajectory if their family had more resources.  I think we have a pretty strong case for why we should invest in families and support them to do their best at parenting,” she said.


The study was supported by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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