States of Welfare: Federalism and Social Citizenship in AFDC-TANF, 1930-2022

Colin Gordon, University of Iowa
Sarah K. Bruch, University of Delaware
KaLeigh K White, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Arun Chaudhary, University of Delaware

Social citizenship in the United States is unequal by design: social policies provide tiered, categorically-based forms of assistance that vary—in their generosity and inclusiveness—across programs, jurisdictions, and citizens. One of the crucial mechanisms of this inequality is the discretion afforded to state (and local) governments in almost every dimension of social provision for poor families with children. In this paper, we identify the degree and type of state discretion, and the consequences for cross-state and racial inequities in welfare or cash assistance (ADC/AFDC/TANF) from 1930-2021. The paper makes three contributions. First, drawing on program and policy documents, we create a detailed coding scheme for state discretion in welfare financing, rule- or policymaking, and administration to document the change over time in these different dimensions of discretion. Second, we create a long-run time series of state-level measures of the generosity of benefits and inclusiveness of receipt based on data from Social Security Board reports and other federal agencies for 1935-1993 and from the State Safety Net Policy database (a unique data set assembled from state and federal administrative records, secondary sources, and original population estimates calculated using the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey) for 1994-2021. And third, we examine the ways in which fragmented provision and state discretion have been (and remain) a particularly potent source of unequal protection for Black/African American families. We find that state discretion in cash assistance is substantial and persistent, narrowing only slightly during the “welfare rights” era of the late 1960s before widening again in the long lead up to welfare reform in 1996. We also find that the consequences of this discretion include substantial and persistent inequities in social provision across states, and across eligible populations within states.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 123. Racializing Political Power