Welfare assistance in the United States remains a contentious topic. It ought to be clear to all sides, however, that money allocated toward alleviating poverty should be used for that purpose. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
One of the core pillars of welfare in the United States system is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, fund. Each state gets to distribute this money more or less as it sees fit.
Some consider TANF funds, if provided in the form of direct financial assistance, to be synonymous with an undeserved handout likely to be squandered. This is an erroneous assumption that has been debunked by studies, even from conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute. In both the United States and the developing world, when poor families are given cash they tend to use it to better the lives of themselves and their families.
Nevertheless, the perception that cash assistance is ineffective has resulted in the slow erosion of TANF funding into an earmarking piggy bank for states to instead fund needless programs. While the amount of TANF money states receive hasn’t changed much since 1997, the amount used for cash assistance has fallen from $14 billion a year to $7 billion, with the rest of the funding going toward programs that do little to alleviate poverty.
This is a problem with racial undertones. States with a high black population are less likely to provide cash assistance than others. As a recent report in The Atlantic noted, Arkansas allocates “two-thirds of the (TANF) budget for the 'formation of two-parent families' and the 'reduction of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.'”
Make no mistake, we support strong two-parent families as a social priority. But TANF was not meant to address this. With a spiraling national debt, the nation ought to ensure that all government programs are backed by evidence and have proven success rates. Using TANF funding to send impoverished children to, say, a Christian summer camp (as is done in Maine) may provide a well-intentioned, fun break for those children whose family’s beliefs align with the religious position of the camp, but it does not lift their family out of poverty.
The problem, of course, is that welfare is such a hot-button issue in the United States, dividing liberals and conservatives. Academic research shows that labeling recipients as lazy or undeserving has dramatic, even dire, consequences on poverty alleviation and the distribution of welfare assistance. We believe there is a better way.
TANF funding in all states should revert back to cash assistance to the poor. Paired with Earned Income Tax Credits, these policies could provide support to families who find themselves struggling and assist them for a short period while they transition toward a more stable income which can support themselves and their families.
The focus should be on helping people lift themselves, not on loosely related programs that do nothing to address the core problem.