Elizabeth struggled to find a job when she graduated from college in 2009, right in the teeth of the Great Recession. Reeling financially from a messy divorce and with two children to support, she turned to government assistance to stay afloat.
She couldn’t qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), due to the $600 she was receiving in child support each month—the only income for her family at the time. The application process for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food assistance, was long and tedious. Her family often went hungry during the months-long application process.
“When you cry because your child told you she’s hungry, you know it’s not a good environment,” said Elizabeth, a 35-year-old woman living in Houston, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “The feeling of being constantly on an edge that you might not come back from. The feeling of one wrong move and we’re going to be on the streets. The burden of carrying that anxiety around all of the time. It’s exhausting.”
While she spent her days worrying about paying bills and feeding her family, a deeper, more pervasive fear hung in the back of her mind—a fear that she wasn’t meeting her children’s basic needs, and that the state might deem her unfit to parent and put her kids in foster care.
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“After filing a restraining order against my ex-husband, a social worker came by for a home visit and the first thing she did was look in the fridge,” Elizabeth said. “I was very aware that someone could take my kids away despite the fact that I was working the hardest I ever have to get us to a better place.”
Elizabeth’s fear is not unfounded. Recent research out of the University of Kansas shows a direct link between a family’s ability to access government assistance, such as TANF, and foster care cases. When TANF caseloads increase, reports of child maltreatment and foster care cases decrease, according to the study’s findings. As TANF caseloads fall, reports of child maltreatment and foster care cases rise. These findings are the first in a three-year study in which researchers will examine all the programs that make up the social safety net, said Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, co-author of the study and associate professor with the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare.
“We were interested in investigating harsh sanctions on TANF in particular and what kind of effects they had on foster care and child abuse reports for all forms of maltreatment, but specifically for neglect,” Johnson-Motoyama told Rewire. “And as it turns out, these caseload measures are the mirror image of each other.”
Kansas, Georgia, and Arizona saw large increases in child maltreatment cases from 2009-2013 at the same time GOP lawmakers in these states enacted more restrictive eligibility requirements to qualify for safety net programs such as TANF and SNAP, or food assistance, according to the study. States with TANF time limits of less than 60 months saw an increase of 29.6 percent in maltreatment victims and 33.5 percent in neglect victims.
“It’s important for families to have a basic standard of living in order for them to function effectively,” Johnson-Motoyama said.
Kansas has some of the most restrictive TANF policies in the United States with a benefit limit of 24 months, and lags the country as a whole in providing TANF benefits to impoverished families with children. Only 25 percent of impoverished families receive TANF in the U.S. and in Kansas only 13 percent receive TANF, according to the researchers. The number of Kansas families receiving TANF has dropped from 14,321 in 2011 to 4,563 in March 2017, and child poverty has almost doubled in Kansas and in the U.S. since 2000.
Social safety net programs have been shown to blunt the negative effects of poverty and help children in families with low incomes succeed by giving them more equal opportunities, said Tazra Mitchell, senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington D.C. During the first few years of life when a child’s brain is rapidly developing, it’s especially important to invest in programs that support parents so they can provide for their children.
“Low-income families have to make very hard decisions between what bills to pay, and when they don’t have adequate support, such as affordable child care, that’s when sometimes children are left alone because parents feel like they have to go earn that paycheck,” Mitchell said. “In the wealthiest country in the world we should not be forcing families to make these impossible decisions.”
The connection between more restrictive support programs and child neglect isn’t surprising to Michael Pahr, public policy director for Kansas Appleseed, a grassroots and legislative advocacy organization focused on issues of child welfare. “Neglect is most closely related to income and the inability to provide for kids,” Pahr said.
Conservative lawmakers often make the argument that states can’t afford to pay for safety net programs, but while the maximum monthly TANF payment for a family of three in Kansas is $375, the cost of two children in foster care a month is about $3,060—more than eight times the payment for TANF, researchers said.
“If we could take even just a fraction of the money that we spend on foster care and give it to families where kids are being removed and put into foster care, we could prevent much of the need for foster care,” Pahr said. “We know how to find money when we need it. I think we can find ways to support families.”
Elizabeth’s circumstances changed when she was finally able to land a job that paid a living wage. She is now in graduate school and her two children are straight-A students. For her, the safety net did its job — providing a buffer during a time of need and enabling her to improve her economic condition. She credits access to child-care subsidies in enabling her to work.
“I feel like we’re really lucky because this was situational poverty and not the kind that spans generations and is crushing and cyclical,” she said. “When people are living in a constant case of crisis they don’t have the mental energy to find a way out or the emotional energy to be present for their kids.”