Vakesa Townson, a married mother of two in north Texas, didn't plan to fall into poverty. But she landed there after her 17-year marriage ended. And while she benefited from food stamps and Medicaid, she lacked the cash assistance she needed to get by.
In Texas and many other states, welfare is viewed as a last resort for poor people who are too old or too sick to work. Rather than help those people move into the workforce, lawmakers have used federal welfare funds to shore up foster care, child protection services and other social programs that are more closely tied to the state's economy.
While advocates for the poor say that Texas's welfare policies are a numbers game that avoids the hard work of reducing poverty, some service providers and not-for-profit agencies argue that those dollars do back up a "holistic approach" to the problem. They also believe it is necessary for the state to have flexibility with its federal funding.
Since 1996, when Congress reformed welfare and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, state officials have used some of their federal funding to shore up foster care, child protection services, health care and other programs that are not directly linked to employment or income. As a result, the percentage of Texans receiving welfare benefits has dropped to one of the lowest in the country, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau released in January.