Poorer states may have fewer resources to fund benefits such as parental leave or state supplements to the federal earned income tax credit. But what they choose to do with federal grants can be telling, said Zachary Parolin, a professor of social policy at Bocconi University in Milan, who has studied how states use the broad discretion granted to them by the social assistance program for needy families.
“You can’t say Alabama gives very little cash assistance to low-income families with children because they can’t afford it,” Parolin said. “He has a TANF program, and it’s mostly funded by the federal government.”
But in 2020, Alabama only spent about 8% of its social funds on direct cash assistance to families. Mississippi spent 5%. Instead, states often spend these grants on a wide range of other programs, such as marriage ad campaigns and abstinence-only sex education (in 2020, a state auditor in the Mississippi found the state wrongfully spent millions of federal welfare dollars, including speeches that were never delivered by former quarterback Brett Favre).
Parolin’s research has shown that states with a larger share of black populations tend to spend the least on cash assistance, widening America’s poverty gap between black and white children. The Times analysis also found that states likely to ban abortion spend a smaller share of social funds on basic assistance.
States with less generous safety net programs also frequently use complex rules and documents to further limit access to benefits, said Sarah Bruch, professor of social policy and sociology at the University of Delaware. States could help women and families, she said, not only by investing more in the safety net, but also by making it easier to find and use.
Angela Rachidi, a senior researcher who studies poverty and safety nets programs at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, said government has a role to play, but not alone: “We have a broader responsibility in as a society – employers, churches, community organizations – to ensure that mothers feel they can bring these children into the world.