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Rural Dimensions of Welfare Reform: A Policy Briefing and Research Synthesis



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Rural Dimensions of Welfare Reform: A Policy Briefing and Research Synthesis

The policy briefing on the rural dimensions of welfare reform funded by Farm Foundation and organized by the Joint Center for Poverty Research and the Rural Poverty Research Institute (RUPRI) was held on June 21, 2000, in Washington, DC. JCPR and RUPRI secured the bipartisan sponsorship of Senators Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) and John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Representatives Eva M. Clayton (D-NC) and Jo Ann H. Emerson (R-MO). 103 people attended the briefing.

The briefing featured Daniel Lichter of Ohio State University; Sheena McConnell of Mathematica Policy Research; Bruce Weber of Oregon State University; and Greg Duncan of Northwestern University. Briefing information and resources are available on the JCPR web site at


The Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research held a May 2000 academic conference on issues of poverty in rural areas. This research explored how people in rural areas will fare under changes in welfare programs and food assistance policies. A June 2000 congressional briefing was then held to share this research with congressional staffers and aides. This research is also being prepared into a book to be released shortly. A summary report of the research was also prepared. This report is available from The Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research website at Below are some of the key findings from this research report:

Background: The 1996 welfare reform legislation ended cash assistance as a federal entitlement, and made receipt of public assistance conditional on working or preparing for work and subject to time limits. Given the more limited job opportunities in rural areas and the poorer access to work and family support services, there has been concern about how this legislation has affected the one-fifth of the nation's population living in nonmetropolitan areas.


Welfare Policy, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and a strong national economy have reduced the welfare caseload dramatically, and increased incomes and lowered poverty levels for both rural and urban single-parent families.

Both Personal characteristics and structural conditions hinder the success of low-income people making the transition from welfare to work. Low-income families rural areas often face substantial structural barriers: fewer and lower-wage jobs, longer distances to services and jobs, less automobile access (a greater barrier because of the distances and no public transportation), and lack of child care options.

Four provisions of the 1996 law are particularly important for rural areas:
  • Funding levels and distribution formulas for TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and supplemental funding: An unintended outcome of the current distribution formula for TANF is that states with below-average welfare grants per poor person are disproportionately rural. Supplemental funding, which goes disproportionately to rural states, is a vulnerable component of TANF funding.

  • Time limits and sanction policies that do not explicitly recognize regional differences in resources and opportunities: The relatively fewer job opportunities, transportation options, and support services in rural areas make it more difficult for rural welfare recipients to avoid reaching time limits under current policy.

  • Child care funding: Child care options in rural areas are more limited than in urban areas, and the current funding does not address differences in child care system capacity between rural and urban places.

  • Funding during recessions: Because jobless rural workers are less likely to gain employment than urban workers during recessions, continued availability of assistance to rural welfare recipients during recessions is likely necessary. The contingency fund designed to help states in recessionary periods does not recognize possible within-state variability in joblessness, requires states to substantially increase their own spending to qualify for funding, and may be inadequate to ensure the continued payment of TANF benefits to those in need during a serious recession; further, this fund is at risk during reauthorization.




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