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.
We used data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) to quantify, in every state, the percent of children in disconnected families, and the percent who received other selected public assistance benefits. For the purposes of this brief, disconnected families are defined as those with a household income at or below the poverty line, in which (a) no one in the household worked at least 50 of the last 52 weeks, and (b) no one had received cash assistance through the TANF program in the past 12 months. The NSCH is representative of children at national and state levels, and the 2011/12 survey included a total sample of 95,677 children ages birth to 17. The survey was sponsored by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and collected data on a range of topics, including health, poverty, public assistance program participation, child well-being, and family functioning.
Four groups, all with household incomes at or below the federal poverty level, were compared (see Table 1):
For each state, we compare the prevalence of children in disconnected families, as well as those in the other three groups, to the national average. We then compare, within each state, children in disconnected families with those in all other poor families on their receipt of nonTANF benefits. See the Data and Methods section at the end of this brief for more information.
Nearly one in three children in poverty were in disconnected families
Nationally, 30 percent of all children in poverty (nearly five million) were in disconnected families in 2011/12 (see Table 1). Geographically, states in the southern region tended to have a high prevalence of disconnected families (see Figure 1). The lowest percentage of poor children in disconnected families was in Maine (17 percent), and the highest was in Texas (42 percent). The percent of poor children in disconnected families was significantly lower than the national average in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, and Vermont, and significantly higher than the national average in Texas only.
Conversely, 70 percent of poor children were not in disconnected families – nearly half (48 percent) of poor children were in a Work/No TANF household, 11 percent were in a No Work/ TANF household, and 11 percent were in a Work/TANF household (see Table 1). In the majority of states, poor children were similarly distributed across the four sub-groups, with a few exceptions. For example, in Alaska and Maine, more children were in families using TANF, and fewer were in families not using TANF, compared with the national averages. In Alaska, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and West Virginia, fewer children were in families who were working and not receiving TANF, compared with the national average. On the other hand, in Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, the percent of children in families who were working and not receiving TANF was higher than the national average.
a Indicates percentage is significantly higher (at p < 0.05) than the corresponding national average.
b Indicates percentage is significantly lower (at p < 0.05) than the corresponding national average.
Note: Shaded cells indicated estimates with a relatively standard error greater than 30%. Caution should be used in interpreting these estimates as they are below standards of precision or reliability often used in analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health 2011/2012 data.
Most children in disconnected families access other public assistance
The majority of children in disconnected families live in households where they or another child received some form of public assistance other than TANF, including Medicaid or a state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), free or reduced-price school meals, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) (see Table 2).i In every state, at least one of these was accessed by more than 80 percent of children in disconnected families (data not shown).
The extent to which children in disconnected families accessed each of these other forms of public assistance varied. Nine out of ten (91 percent) children in poor families disconnected from TANF and employment were insured by Medicaid or CHIP, making it the most commonly received form of other public assistance nationally. This high level of use held across all states. Around three-quarters of children in disconnected families lived in a household where they or another child received free or reduced-price school meals. Use of free/reduced-price school meals ranged from 58 percent in Pennsylvania to 93 percent in Massachusetts. Additionally, about three-quarters of children in disconnected families lived in a household where they or another child received SNAP. In every state, the majority of children in disconnected families received SNAP, except in California (49 percent) and the District of Columbia (47 percent).ii
In addition, we compared the receipt of non-TANF public assistance among the households of children in poor disconnected families to receipt among poor non-disconnected families. On average, nationally, there was no statistically significant difference in receipt of free/reduced price school meals compared with non-disconnected poor children (77 percent versus 79 percent; not shown) or SNAP (73 percent versus 74 percent; not shown). However, children in disconnected families were more likely to be insured by Medicaid/CHIP than children in nondisconnected poor families (91 percent versus 87 percent; not shown).
There were also differences between children in disconnected families and other poor children in some states (differences are denoted by a subscript in Table 2). For example, in California, the District of Columbia, and Maryland, a lower percent of children in disconnected families received SNAP than other children in poverty. In Arizona and Louisiana, the percent of children in disconnected families who received SNAP was higher than it was for other children in poverty.
Overall, nearly half of children in disconnected families were in households that received benefits from all three of these public assistance programs (see Table 2). This varied by state, from 23 percent in Colorado to 71 percent in Kentucky. In Arizona and Louisiana, children in disconnected families were more likely than other children in poverty to have received all three types of other public assistance, while in Colorado, the District of Columbia, and Maine, children in disconnected families were less likely than other children in poverty to have received all three types of public assistance.
c Indicates the odds of being in this category are significantly higher (at p < 0.05) among disconnected poor children than among poor children in non-disconnected families.
d Indicates the odds of being in this category are significantly lower (at p < 0.05) among disconnected poor children than among poor children in non-disconnected families.
‡ Readers should use caution in interpreting estimates for this state as they are based on an unweighted sample size of fewer than 50 children in disconnected families.
Disconnection is common in the U.S. – in 40 states and the District of Columbia, in 2011/12, about one in three poor children lived in a household in which no adult was working or receiving cash assistance. Engagement in the workforce and use of TANF varied across the country; in some states, less than one in ten poor families received TANF. Like other families in poverty, nearly all disconnected families accessed other public assistance programs to make ends meet. In particular, in the U.S. overall and in several states, children in disconnected families were more likely than children in other poor families to be insured by Medicaid or the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program. It is important to note that, unlike TANF, the other three programs examined in this brief do not impose time limits on participation. In addition, it is likely that some portion of the disconnected group are families in which adults face significant barriers to employment – from transportation difficulties and lack of affordable child care, to serious health problems – and have run up against federally- or state-mandated time limits. While public assistance is only one way disconnected families get by,3 the findings presented in this brief highlight the need for decision makers to consider this potentially vulnerable group within their own state, and the opportunities available to all poor parents to provide for their children’s health, safety, and well-being.
The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) was conducted in 2003, 2007 and 2011/12 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, by the National Center for Health Statistics, with funding from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Telephone numbers from a random sampling process were used to contact households, and one child in each household with minor children was randomly selected to be the focus of the study. An adult in the household knowledgeable about the child answered questions about the child and themselves. The survey was representative of children under 18 years old nationwide and also within each state. A total of 95,677 interviews were completed in 2011/12.
The use of TANF in the household was indicated by the following question:
The use of SNAP and free/reduced-price meals was indicated by the following questions:
The use of Medicaid/CHIP was indicated by the following two questions:
To assess the statistical significance of differences in the prevalence of the four groups in each state and the corresponding national averages, we compared 95-percent confidence intervals around the estimates.
To compare the use of public assistance programs other than TANF among disconnected families with their use among other poor families, we ran logistic regressions where the dependent variable was use of a given program (Medicaid/CHIP, SNAP, or free/reduced-price meals) or use of all three programs, and the independent variable was a dummy variable for being in a disconnected family.
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This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.
© Child Trends 2015. May be reprinted with citation.