The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Welfare rolls decline during the pandemic despite economic upheaval

Melissa Markham, a mother of two in Kansas, holds her child, Brooklynn. Markham has lost her home and her job during the coronavirus pandemic, and stringent welfare benefits in the state offer scant relief. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)

The number of Americans receiving financial help through the nation’s welfare system ebbed last year, even as economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation.

As the pandemic destroyed jobs and health officials urged people to stay home to avoid exposure to the virus, 13 states left in place rules requiring residents to work or look for a job to qualify for monthly checks from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the main public program of cash assistance for the very poor.

The work requirements were part of dramatic state-to-state variations in the way the welfare program, known by the acronym TANF, responded to the pandemic, according to federal caseload figures and other data analyzed by The Washington Post. As a result, the odds of being able to get — and stay — on welfare have hinged on where someone lives.

In all but three of the 13 states that continued their work rules, scattered across the South, the Midwest and the West, the number of residents receiving cash assistance fell from February 2020, the month before the pandemic was declared in the United States, to the end of the year, the analysis shows.

In contrast, among the 37 states that officially halted or relaxed the rules once the pandemic began, just eight had welfare caseload declines. The number of people receiving cash assistance rose in 20 of those states and, in the nine others, caseloads grew until the middle of last year before tapering off.

Overall, parents and children receiving help through TANF decreased slightly from nearly 1.94 million recipients just before the pandemic to fewer than 1.935 million in December, according to federal figures.

The Post’s analysis is based on the most recent available federal data plus think tank research into states’ policies during this time.

Taken together, the findings point to the ground-level effects of a welfare system that defers to states to decide who qualifies for the cash assistance and what people must do to receive such help. Each state sets the level of the benefits and the length of time they are available, up to a five-year federal ceiling. The system rests, too, on block grants from the federal government that do not adjust with inflation and are inelastic during hard economic times.

“TANF is absolutely not reaching as many people as it should,” said Justin Schweitzer, a researcher at the liberal Center for American Progress, who studied states’ policies during the pandemic. “For the people it does reach, it is a lifesaver.”

A creation of the Clinton era, TANF has existed for a quarter-century and provides help to families with children and to children living with other relatives. It replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program that originated during the Great Depression and, over its six decades, became a target of criticism that it bred generation-to-generation dependency on welfare.

The open-ended benefits, critics argued, undermined motivation of poor Americans to get training and find work, as the more recent program has sought to instill. But other scholars and activists rejected that characterization as a caricature, and the redefinition of welfare proved so controversial that two senior Clinton administration health officials resigned over it, contending that the change would harm low-income Americans.

From the outset, the uncertainty hovering over TANF was how well it would bear up in difficult economic times when poverty swelled and jobs became more scarce. During the biggest previous test, the Great Recession from December 2007 to mid-2009, Congress provided a $5 billion emergency fund for the program in a 2009 stimulus package. Caseloads nationwide rose 10 to 15 percent, according to various calculations.

Even that slim expansion contrasts with what has happened during the sharp recession the pandemic brought on last year. TANF has been far less responsive to the economic travails wrought by the coronavirus than other parts of the federal government’s social safety net.

The number of people receiving food assistance or relying on Medicaid, the public health insurance for the poor, rose sharply. And pandemic relief packages adopted by Congress included stimulus payments and an expansion of unemployment insurance.

Last year’s relief packages did not add to TANF. Early this spring, the American Rescue Plan Act provided an extra $1 billion for states to give needy families up to four months of temporary help.

The scant federal focus on the welfare system fits a pattern in which TANF has shriveled over the years. Caseloads fell dramatically during the program’s early years and have kept dwindling. The proportion of families eligible for benefits who receive them has shrunk from about 7 in 10 during the last years of AFDC to 1 in 4, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

Today, the Democratic Biden White House has succeeded the Republican Trump administration. Coronavirus infections and deaths are below their pandemic highs but have turned upward again as the delta variant spreads. The looming question is how much the ebbing of TANF matters.

The pandemic caused millions of people to tumble into poverty in the sharpest one-year surge on record. However, public policy experts across the ideological spectrum say poverty would have soared even higher last year in the pandemic if Congress had not provided two rounds of stimulus payments and widened access to unemployment benefits.

“The vast majority of these [low-income] families would be eligible for all these other benefits,” said Angela Rachidi, a scholar in poverty studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

LaDonna Pavetti, a longtime welfare expert at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, agreed. “TANF may not have been as responsive as we would want it to be,” she said, “but there were other pieces of the safety net that really were responsive.”

But economist Donna Ginther, director of the University of Kansas’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, said Congress was forced to find what she called “workarounds” to help the pandemic’s economic casualties because the nation’s main welfare program does not give the federal government much control over it.

“When you push policy decisions down to the states, you get much more inequality. You get generous states and stingy states,” Ginther said. TANF’s monthly checks “are not generous,” she said. “But if you think of how hand-to-mouth poor families are, we find that TANF benefits really make a difference.”

A frayed lifeline

Welfare’s limits are glaring to Melissa Markham, homeless since March when her landlord, who had been trying to evict her for months, finally kicked her out with her baby daughter and 10-year-old son. She said they slept in her sister’s car, then in the Chevy Suburban she’s kept even though the transmission is shot. Now, they are staying in the basement of a friend who was worried about them.

Her life began sliding downhill in September 2019. Living outside Kansas City, Kan., Markham had been working as a telemetry technician at a hospital for $17 an hour when her partner walked out. The following week, a test confirmed her hunch that she was several weeks pregnant.

Her always-high blood pressure soared, and she developed preeclampsia, a dangerous pregnancy complication. Down to one income and with a new apartment lease, she kept working.

The next February, just before the pandemic took hold, she switched jobs, accepting an offer from a doctor who made rounds at the hospital. On her second day, she called in to say she had to stay home because her son was sick. On the third day, she said, she was told the job wasn’t going to work out.

“Single-mom life crashed that one for me,” she said.

She tried to get her hospital job back and was told it already had been filled. Her obstetrician said she needed to stop working anyway until her baby was born.

The next month, as the pandemic began, she sold her 2004 Audi for $3,000. That and tax returns covered her $1,000 rent and some bills through May. That June, with her daughter, Brooklynn, just weeks old, Markham applied for TANF. The state required her to perform 20 hours of job-hunting activities a week — applying online for jobs that did not come through, meeting with counselors.

The monthly checks — $403 for the three of them — covered less than half the rent, and the landlord began trying to evict them, persisting even after Markham got a $5,000 housing allowance she thought would satisfy her debt.

In November, she finally found work as a receptionist in a doctor’s office and put Brooklynn in day care. On her third day, she received a letter from the county health department, saying her baby had been exposed to the coronavirus and needed to be quarantined for 14 days. The caregiver had covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.

“Obviously, [Brooklynn] couldn’t care for herself,” Markham said. While she stayed home through the quarantine, she managed to keep her job. But when her baby got sick in December and Markham took off from work again, she said, “my job parted ways with me.”

Each time she lost work, Markham applied for unemployment. She has form letters from the state of Kansas saying she didn’t work enough hours at those jobs to qualify.

So even though she had just become homeless as a second pandemic spring began, even though TANF was her only income, she told Kansas’s Department for Children and Families to shut the benefit off.

Since 2016, Kansas has had a two-year time limit, three years less than the federal ceiling. And with 10 months of assistance this time as well as an earlier spell on TANF in Missouri after her son was born, Markham knew she had just five months of eligibility left for the rest of her life.

“I made the executive decision,” she said, “to save some months of lifeline.”

Kansas has kept its work requirements and strict time limit even though Gov. Laura Kelly (D) opposes the state’s Hope Act, the law that tightened the rules and was adopted while her predecessor, Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican, was in office.

Early in the pandemic, the Kelly administration asked the state legislature to set aside the time limit during the health emergency.

The proposal went before one legislative committee before it died, said Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

As a result, Howard said, her department had to reject nearly 850 TANF applications from March 2020 to May of this year because the people already had used up their two years. And 390 TANF recipients exhausted their benefits during that time.

“For those folks on the edge, for those folks who do not qualify for very much from unemployment, who do not have the right work history, those are the very people that would be most [helped by] TANF as the benefit of last resort,” Howard said. And they are “least able to access that because of the time limits.”

‘It was very easy’

On March 13, 2020, the day the federal government declared the coronavirus a national emergency, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed an executive order saying the coronavirus was a peacetime emergency. A week later, Walz signed another order, this one making sure help continued to flow to Minnesotans who are elderly, have a disability or mental illness or are in low-income families with children.

The governor waived the rules that had required people getting assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program — the state’s name for TANF — to work and to make monthly in-person visits to prove their eligibility.

In Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, Kate Heffernan was relieved. She is the county administrator in charge of “economic supports.”

“We really were trying to eliminate some of the barriers,” Heffernan recalled. The county stepped up fledgling efforts that allow applicants to give verbal okays by phone rather than signing forms in person. And, she said, “the idea of working on a job search, when people were getting laid off and really no employers were hiring — it was unrealistic.”

Time limits went away. “The idea of pulling benefits right at the time they were needing them the most didn’t make sense,” Heffernan said. The number of county families receiving cash assistance through Minnesota’s program grew from 7,300 just before the pandemic to more than 8,600 this May.

One of the additions was Cianché Felton.

Felton, 21, lives in south Minneapolis, seven blocks from the heart of protests over the murder of George Floyd last year. She learned she was pregnant with a second child in September. Like Markham’s a year before, hers was a high-risk pregnancy. She had had two stillbirths already.

Because she lives in Minnesota and not in Kansas, Felton decided — after she visited her doctor, who advised her to take it easy while she was pregnant — to leave her job as a certified nursing assistant at Twin Cities Assisted Living, where she had been working double shifts at $17 an hour.

A worker from a visiting nurses association brought her applications for the Minnesota Family Investment Program and for food stamps. It was not her first time on welfare: She had been getting assistance for herself and her son before she found a job as a grocery cashier and before switching to the nursing assistant’s work. Back then, she met her work requirement by going to a school for teenage mothers.

This time, she was allowed to reapply to Longfellow Alternative High School. Because of the relaxed work rules, though, she did not have to attend while she was pregnant and staying home. Nor, under the pandemic rules, did she need to report to a county office each month.

Her daughter, Ma’kiyah, who was due in June, was born April 30, weighing 3 pounds 14 ounces. She spent her first 27 days in the hospital.

The state’s welfare program did not require Felton to bring the usual proof — a birth certificate, hospital discharge papers — documenting that the baby was hers. Within three days of Ma’kiyah’s birth, Felton’s welfare assistance went from $547 a month for her and her 8-year-old son, Elijah, to $610 for the three of them.

“It was very easy. I appreciate that a lot,” she said. “If there were no pandemic rules, I would not be getting the benefits.”

Last month, she returned to Longfellow. Once she earns two more credits, she will have a high school diploma.

A job and hope

In Washington, D.C., the Office of Family Assistance within HHS’s Administration for Children and Families issued guidance March 24, 2020, with questions and answers about TANF and the pandemic.

Explaining how TANF could be helpful in the crisis, it said states could consider expanding services and broadening eligibility criteria.

“We were trying to provide some reassurances to states that we understood their situation,” said Julie L. Siegel, director of the Office of Family Assistance’s division of state TANF policy. This was especially true for states worried they could face penalties if they did not engage enough people in work activities.

“We tried to say, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” Siegel said.

Neither the Trump nor the Biden administration could do more than tell states the rules could be relaxed. It could not change the rules.

That lack of control from Washington differs from Medicaid. The federal government decreed that during the public health emergency for the pandemic, states could not reassess whether people still are eligible for the insurance, so no one has been removed from those rolls. The number of Americans relying on Medicaid coverage climbed by about 10 million from just before the pandemic to January, reaching what is believed to be an all-time high of 74 million.

And it differs from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. As a growing roster of families reported trouble affording food during the pandemic, relief laws passed by Congress gave that program extra money and allowed states to give emergency allotments, so that everyone on SNAP nationwide has been getting the maximum possible amount. Participation in SNAP rose from nearly 37 million the month before the pandemic to more than 42 million as of April, federal figures show.

Schweitzer’s research at the Center for American Progress shows that pandemic-era changes to TANF have been scattered. Slightly more than a dozen states gave extra emergency benefits — mostly a one-time payment.

Seven states stopped removing people from assistance once they reached the state’s time limit. And D.C. already used local money to allow people to receive benefits longer than five years. When the coronavirus came along, the city stopped penalizing people if they didn’t meet work requirements and allowed them to apply for and continue their benefits online, said Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Still, Schweitzer said, “there’s a lot more states could be doing. … People should be getting the assistance they need regardless of where they live or where they are born. Children have no control over where they are living.”

Idaho’s tiny cash assistance program dropped from 2,800 people the month before the pandemic to fewer than 2,500 by the end of last year, federal figures show.

“It seems counterintuitive to me,” said Shannon Brady, who oversees welfare for the state’s Department of Health and Welfare.

Brady said changing automated systems that track work requirements and time limits was too costly, given the size of the program — and that many Idaho cases involve caregivers who are not parents and do not need to meet work requirements. Recipients could seek exemptions by calling a contractor who handles welfare benefits, but the state never advertised that option.

Idaho is the only state that did not apply this spring for a portion of the $1 billion Congress provided for up to four months of emergency assistance.

In Kansas, Markham just got a job offer. Once she begins, she will be a secretary at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Overland Park, just south of Kansas City and paid $16 an hour.

She hopes that housing assistance might show up, hopes that she can find her way out of at least $7,000 in debt, hopes that she and her kids can leave the friend’s basement. She is not sure when that might happen.

The Washington Post used two data sets to analyze how states’ welfare programs have performed during the coronavirus pandemic. The first data set is a monthly, state-by-state roster of caseloads in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The data is in a spreadsheet provided to The Post by the Office of Family Assistance in the Department of Health and Human Services. The Post compared the number of individuals receiving cash assistance in February 2020, the month before the pandemic was declared, and December, the most recent month for which data is available. The other data set is a spreadsheet provided to The Post by Justin Schweitzer, a researcher at the Center for American Progress, a liberal D.C. think tank. Schweitzer studied how states responded to the pandemic by examining whether they adjusted their TANF rules regarding work requirements, time limits for assistance, emergency cash payments and other program policies. Schweitzer researched states’ policies through an online search of state announcements of such changes. In some cases, The Post contacted state agencies to follow up on Schweitzer’s research.