The fragmentation of social welfare: the characteristics of state legislatures and temporary assistance for needy families



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Texas Tech University


The U.S. welfare state has evolved through several stages, and is currently over a century old. As the federal government increasingly returns policy authority and financial responsibility for welfare and other policies to the states, it is important to understand how the different state legislative environments can shape policy outcomes, which makes this study especially germane to the devolution and legislative studies literature. Most studies of social welfare policy approach this subject using a one-dimensional perspective, a view that does not give us a complete picture of social welfare policy.

My study uses a multi-dimensional institutional model to explore Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as adopted by the states in 1996-1997 and the states' monthly cash benefit levels under TANF for Fiscal Year 1998. This study focuses on the strictness and cash benefit levels of state TANF programs, and uses state legislatures as the unit of analysis. The institutional model posits that certain characteristics of a state's legislature—political competition, percent Democrats, type of government, percent females, citizen ideology, change in the poverty level, Gross State Product per capita, and legislative professionalism—affect the strictness level of state TANF programs. In addition, I posit that these same characteristics, along with the strictness level, affect the monthly cash benefit level for a single parent with two children and no income.

As is shown, political competition and Gross State Product per capita are the characteristics that best explain state monthly cash benefit levels. When it comes to the strictness of state TANF programs, only political competition provides an explanation of the variance between the states' strictness levels. From these multi-dimensional models, I posit two important propositions about state welfare policymaking.

First, I posit that the states' social welfare policymaking is fragmented. Since the variables that affect the states' cash benefit levels (TANF Allotment Models) do not have the same effect upon the strictness level of state TANF programs, I assume that these two dimensions may be driven by other factors—factors that may not be common to both dimensions of state welfare policy. Granted, this is for future research to explore. Yet in order to provide comprehensive views of this fragmented policy, we must continue to use multi-dimensional models in our exploration of state policy.

Second, since the states had such a short period of time in which to adopt this new policy, the "sense of urgency" may have been the determining factor in the states' TANF policy. The exceptions being those states that had a high level of political competition (Strictness and TANF Allotment Models) and Gross State Product per capita (TANF Allotment Model 2). In other words, if the states had been allowed a longer period of time in which to adopt the TANF program, then the other political and economic variables in these models may have had more of an impact on this policy area. However, since the states only had a year in which to adopt this new welfare policy, then the "deadline" may have been the determining factor.