Imagine day-to-day life in a family that is living below the poverty level, where the adults in the household are unemployed, and no one is receiving cash assistance from the government.
What is life like for the children in these families? How do their parents find the resources to put food on the table, much less pay for doctors’ visits or child care? Researchers and policymakers often call these “disconnected families” – because they’re not engaged in either the labor market or cash public assistance. Since the welfare reform bill of 1996, the federal cash assistance program – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or, TANF – has increasingly become a program to support working parents, rather than a benefit to non-working parents.1 The number of families enrolled in TANF fell by more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2009 and rose by much less during the most-recent recession (by 12 percent between July 2008 and September 2009).2 This leaves researchers and policymakers asking, if people living in poverty are not turning to TANF even in times of economic crisis, how are they getting by? Who are these families and how can we reach them?
Child Trends explored these questions using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). We found that almost a third of children living in families at or below the poverty level are in “disconnected families,” where no adults have been employed for at least 50 weeks or used TANF in the past year. Half of children in disconnected families have parents with less than a high school education, 43 percent live with a single mother, and half are Hispanic/Latino. Policymakers should be aware that the parents in these families may be among the hardest to reach – in particular, the low levels of parental education and the overrepresentation of Hispanic children in this group are factors to consider when developing policies to connect these families to the resources that will help their children succeed.
A large percentage of disconnected families have sought help through other public support programs – almost half report using three out of the four programs they were asked about in the National Survey of Children Health. For example, more than 90 percent of children in disconnected families are enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Around 75 percent use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps, and more than 75 percent receive free and reduced-price school meals. Children in similarly poor families that are using TANF, though, are even more likely to be using SNAP and to be receiving free and reduced meals.
Children in disconnected families are among those most vulnerable to falling through the gaps in the safety net. The harmful effects of poverty on children’s well-being have been documented over and over again (read about five ways poverty harms children). While it is encouraging that most disconnected families can, and do, access other benefits, in particular health insurance through Medicaid and CHIP, participation is not universal and in some cases is lower than among other low-income families. More importantly, these programs can’t provide many of the other things children need for healthy development that may ultimately help them move out of poverty, such as safe neighborhoods, books, and educational resources at home.
There were some bright spots in our research on disconnected families. We found that most parents in disconnected families report positive child behaviors, such as bouncing back quickly when things don’t go their way, and smiling or laughing a lot (among younger children). However, fewer disconnected parents report reading or telling stories to their young children at least 6 days a week than parents who are not employed but using TANF. Most parents report their older child(ren) follows through with tasks and stays calm in the face of challenges, at least some of the time if not always—but a higher percentage of non-employed parents who are receiving TANF report that their children at least sometimes demonstrate these positive behaviors. Also, the majority of disconnected parents report they’re coping very well with the demands of parenting, and rarely or never felt angry with their child in the past month. Nevertheless, outcomes for these children and their parents tend to be lower than outcomes for those whose family incomes are above the poverty level.
You can read more about what we found in our upcoming research brief, made possible with generous funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
 Schott, L. (2012) Policy Basics: An Introduction to TANF. Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Available online: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=936
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families Office of Family Assistance. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (TANF) Ninth Report to Congress. Accessed online: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/ofa/9th_report_to_congress_3_26_12.pdf