The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Explaining State Variations in Welfare Generosity of TANF and SNAP in the 2000s

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Yu-Ling Chang, MSW, PhD student, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Marcia Meyers, PhD, Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

This study examines the role of race and political ideology in determining the generosity of social safety net programs. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are two key social programs for poor families. Following the 1996 passage of the PRWOA, the U.S. moved toward a more decentralized welfare system in which states were given a considerable amount of discretion for setting policies and procedures. We argue that the generosity of social programs is influenced by state policy decisions and plays an important role in the economic well-being of poor families. Previous research has primarily focused on TANF (Soss et al., 2001; De Jong, 2006; Rodgers et al., 2008) and has neglected to study state-level factors affecting changes in generosity over time. Recent studies suggest that SNAP may now be a more important element in the safety net and has been more responsive to economic needs (Bilter & Hoynes, 2010). To further our understanding of the extent and predictors of state variation in the generosity of these programs, the purpose of this study is to examine the effects of state-level factors on the changes in generosity of TANF and SNAP in the 2000s.


The data source for measures of welfare generosity is the State Safety Net Policy dataset, which includes comparable measures (“adequacy” of the benefit levels and “inclusiveness” of the program in enrolling needy families) across 10 state programs since 1994. Other measures were obtained from publicly available databases. Using the ArcGIS software, we mapped the changes in generosity for two programs from 2000 to 2009. Using multiple regression analyses, we constructed four models to analyze the effects of state-level factors on 2009 levels of TANF’s and SNAP’s inclusiveness and adequacy respectively, controlling for the degree of inclusiveness/adequacy in 2000. We hypothesized that states with more economic resources, more liberal ideology, higher low-income voter turnout, lower percentages of African American on welfare, and higher government professionalism were more likely to increase generosity.


The medians of inclusiveness and adequacy for the 50 states declined for TANF but increased for SNAP, although considerable variations exist. (Our ArcGIS maps demonstrate the variations.) In our four regression models, race has significant negative effects on changes in generosity for TANF but no effects for SNAP. States with higher government professionalism are more likely to increase TANF inclusion. Having a more liberal government has significant positive effects on inclusion for both two programs, but no effects on adequacy. State wealth has a significant effect on an increase in TANF adequacy and a decrease in SNAP inclusion.


The findings highlight the crucial roles of race and political ideology in state-level policies and practices that influence the welfare generosity. This has implications for racial and geographic disparities in redistributive programs. Future research should consider how these factors influence other safety net programs and social workers should be alert to program policies and practices in their state when assisting low income clients and advocating for socially just welfare policies.