Poor, Unemployed, and Not on Welfare: The Prevalence of “Disconnected Families” by State

Research BriefFamiliesFeb 1 2015

A considerable number of U.S. families living in poverty survive without either income from a job or from government-sponsored cash assistance; these families are sometimes referred to as “disconnected.” The program that has historically provided many low-income families with a cash benefit – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – has changed significantly since welfare reform in 1996. Over time, the program has shifted from being primarily a family-support program to a time-limited work-support program, dramatically shrinking a key part of the safety net formerly available to many poor families.

Since welfare reform, states have had broad discretion to determine eligibility, work requirements, time limits, and benefit levels for their TANF programs.1 Nationally, caseloads fell by 50 percent between 1996 and 2011, but in individual states caseloads have declined by as little as 25 percent and by as much as 80 percent.2 Given these declines and the differences among state TANF policies, policymakers and researchers want to understand how families who are living in poverty, but who are not supported by either employment or TANF, are faring. Of particular concern are the children in these families. This research brief uses data from the 2011/12 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) to quantify the population of children in disconnected families in each state, and to describe the extent to which these families access other public assistance programs.