The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Symbolic Stringency in Anti-Poverty Policy: State Implementation of TANF EBT Restrictions

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Vincent A. Fusaro, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Amanda Rowe Tillotson, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose

In 2012, Barack Obama signed into law the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, primarily intended to extend unemployment benefits and FICA tax relief. The Act also required states, by 2014, to enact policies that would prevent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) clients from withdrawing benefits at adult entertainment venues and liquor stores. Failure to implement such restrictions would result in reduced federal TANF funding. Implementation of this requirement proved challenging for states. It also symbolically reiterated stereotypical themes of immorality, substance abuse and irresponsible spending among those in poverty. 

In contrast to the legislation that created TANF, about which most scholarship on stringent policy choice has focused, the new requirements feature a federal incentive for adoption. Given this difference from existing studies of welfare policy, what state-level characteristics are related to adoption? Existing research suggests several possible hypotheses: 1) states with larger proportional racial/ethnic minority populations are more likely to adopt strict welfare policies, 2) states with a high proportion of welfare recipients will be more stringent, 3) states with more professional legislatures will be early adopters, and 4) government ideology and partisanship will be associated with stringency.

Understanding the patterns of policy adoption in this case is important, as some scholars have suggested symbolic federal initiatives are likely to become more frequent as power over social policy continues to devolve. Additionally, the use of federal incentives/sanctions to coerce state policy adoption is an increasingly important policy tool.


By July 2012, ten states had adopted policies compliant with the federal mandate. We investigate the connection between restriction adoption and state characteristics using a series of logit models. Using policy adoption as a dependent variable, we estimate the probability of adoption conditional on state racial/ethnic demographics, poverty rate, TANF use rate, government ideology, legislative professionalization and divided government, all factors either found or theorized to be related to stringency in previous studies. 


At α =0.05, we found a significant and positive relationship between legislative professionalization and early adoption of the TANF restrictions. Surprisingly, we also found a negative relationship with racial demographics, opposite the expected direction given existing scholarship. No other statistically significant relationships were found.

Conclusions and Implications

Our findings suggest a more complicated politics of race and welfare policy than has thus far been examined. Essentially, we observed a reversal of the race/policy stringency relationship. One possible explanation is that states with smaller racial/ethnic minority populations have higher per capita TANF expenditures, making federal sanctions more consequential. If so, then states least likely to adopt stringent measures when left to their own devices become the most likely to do so with federal incentives. This possibility suggests that welfare policy stringency is not merely a function of state policy choice, but also the actions of the federal government. The study also implies that the structure of state legislatures, and particularly professionalization, connects to the tendency to quickly pass social policies that respond to federal mandates.