Researchers have discovered a link between access to welfare payments and foster care.
As many as 29,000 fewer children may have entered the foster care system during the 12-year study if U.S. states had made it easier for poor families to receive cash through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
"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 study co-author Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, a professor of social work at Ohio State University.
"That's about 29,000 children who might have a different life trajectory if their family had more resources," she said in a university news release. "I think we have a pretty strong case for why we should invest in families and support them to do their best at parenting."
The TANF program was established in 1996 as a block grant program that gives states up to $16.5 billion a year to provide assistance for needy U.S. families. Benefits vary widely. One example: Monthly cash payments for a family of three were $170 in Mississippi and $923 in Alaska in 2016.
"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," said Johnson-Motoyama, who conducted the study with Donna Ginther, from the University of Kansas.
The researchers examined the link between these policies and foster care placements in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. from 2004 to 2016.
One focus was on how six different restrictions on TANF benefits in various states affected how many low-income people participated in the program in those states, along with looking for links between changes in participation and child welfare system outcomes.
Among restrictions were work requirements for mothers of children less than 1 year old, and cutting off benefits before the five years allowed by the federal government.
Each additional TANF policy that restricted access to benefits was linked to 13% fewer families participating in the TANF program, the study found.
Restrictions on TANF access were associated with 44 additional neglect victims per 100,000 children and 22 additional children per 100,000 placed in foster care, researchers found.
They also checked to see if other factors, including social safety-net caseloads, the opioid epidemic or the number of women in prisons, changed the overall results of their study. They did not.
The findings were published Dec. 5 in the journal Health Affairs.
Previous research provides possible explanations for why less restrictive TANF benefits were linked to fewer cases of child maltreatment, Johnson-Motoyama said.
"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," Johnson-Motoyama said.
The researchers said the study is among the first to examine how changes in state TANF policies over time affected child protective services involvement and foster care placement.
"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," Johnson-Motoyama said.
The American Psychological Association has more on the effects of poverty on children.
SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, Dec. 5, 2022