Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

You know the myths well, I suppose. Safety net benefits trap recipients in poverty — an assertion cagily repeated by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman just a few weeks ago. They’re a spider web, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush opines.

A new Census Bureau report tells us otherwise. About a third of the people who participated in one or more of our major safety net programs did so for a year or less during a recent four-year period that includes part of the Great Recession.

About the Report

The Census report updates a very similar program participation report issued about three years ago. Both use an ongoing survey of a sample of American households. So it’s possible to track entries into and exits from major safety net programs over time.

The report focuses on people who benefited from any of six programs that limited eligibility based, at least in part, on income — Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, lumped together with dwindling general assistance programs.

Many, many numbers in the report — some in the text, even more in graphs. It’s hard — for me, at least — to tease out what they tell us from a policy perspective. I’ve nevertheless taken a crack at it, as follows.

Not Much Program Growth

Participation rates in the six programs rose somewhat from 2009 to 2011, but then leveled off. In 2012, slightly more than one in five people (21.3%) participated in at least one.

Medicaid had the highest average monthly participation rate, increasing from 13.9% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2012. States that chose to expand their Medicaid programs presumably accounts for this.

On the other hand, the participation rate for housing assistance remained basically flat, at 4.2%. And the rate for TANF/General assistance ticked down to a paltry 1% in 2012. Not much of a safety net there for the poorest among us.

Deterrents to Work

The new Census figures don’t deliver a clear rebuttal to the claims that safety net programs discourage beneficiaries from working. They do, however, tell us a few relevant things.

First and foremost, by far and away the high percent of beneficiaries are under 18 — most presumably too young to work. In an average month during 2012, slightly over 39% of safety net beneficiaries were in this age group. That’s well over double the participation rate for working-age adults.

Among them, 33.5% of those who were unemployed participated in at least one safety net program during the four-year period. This is more than 10% higher than the rate for their peers who weren’t counted as part of the labor force because they were neither working nor actively seeking work.

Hard to Live on Those Benefits

Anyone who thinks the safety net is a comfortable hammock ought to take a look at the Census Bureau’s findings on benefits. During the four-year period, the median benefit for all six programs was $404 a month, adjusted for inflation.

The median is skewed upward by SSI benefits, with a median of $698 a month — about 75% of the federal poverty line for a single person.

Other major cash and near-cash benefits drag the overall median down. TANF/GA participants received a median of $321 a month.

Cycling In and Out

Long about the time the Census Bureau issued its report, Vox published a post by a working woman who’s angry as all get out because people look down on her for participating in SNAP.

She says, among other things, that she doesn’t “do it all the time” — only when she can’t pay her bills and also buy food for her family. She’s never participated for more than 18 months at a stretch.

We can’t see this sort of cycling in and out in the figures the Bureau reports. But we do see something that suggests it — and more clearly, the cycling out part.

Fewer than half the people who participated in any of the safety net programs did so for more than three of the four years the report covers. Variation there, depending on program — from 49.4% for housing assistance to 9.8% for TANF/GA.

At the same time, TANF/GA racked up by far and a way the highest percent participating for no more than a year. This doesn’t, of course, mean that states’ TANF program do a great job at moving poor parents from welfare to work that pays enough to support them and their children.

It could indicate how very low some states set their income cut-offs for continuing eligibility and/or their success at cutting their caseloads by other means, e.g., with sanctions that effectively bump families out of their programs or extremely short time limits, a strategy some Red states have adopted.

It surely does, however, suggest that families don’t linger in TANF because those benefits afford them such a comfortable hammock. Or snare them in “perpetual dependence” because they’d lose the cash and have to pay higher taxes if they moved up the income ladder. (Quoting Bush again here.)

So far as SNAP is concerned, less than a third (30.4%) of those who received them did so for more than a year — whether for 12 months running or some months at one point, some months later we can’t tell.

Another 38.6% participated for three to four years. This could indicate, among other things, under-employment — not failures to work by those who could be expected to, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

We know, from other sources, that it indicates rock-bottom earnings by fast-food workers and many in the retail sales sector.

Will any of this make a difference to policymakers who evince such concern about how our safety net programs discourage work — and are growing by unsustainable leaps and bounds? A rhetorical question. Yet the rest of us — some policymakers included — can come to a better understanding of how dynamic “the dynamics of economic well-being” in this country are, thanks to the Census analysis.


5 Responses to Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

  1. zoom314 says:

    Comfortable hammock, only ignorant Republicans in Congress mutter that, I know you have to repeat it to make a point. Poverty Programs don’t create Poverty(except in a rich mans warped mind they do), they alleviate poverty, there are 2 bills in Congress with 39 co-sponsors, 31 in the House(H.R.2442) and 8 in the Senate(S.1387), both bills were sent to Committee to die by Republicans who have no interest in these bills, since they are the ‘Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2015’, neither adds any income of course, but does seek to raise and index the saving rate from $2,000($3,000 for couples) to $10,000($15,000 for couples), plus other long overdue reforms which can trap people in the program since none of thew limits have been changed since Richard Nixon signed SSI into law in 1972. Of course not everyone is able to work anymore, but to Republicans they follow the Myth that ‘the only truly disabled person is someone who is paralyzed from the neck down’, to the GOP everyone else is able bodied and so should not be getting any money and to them that is Fraud, hidden disabilities and pain to the GOP are foreign concepts and ideas, the GOP does not like anything Foreign, but then that does not surprise Me any, the GOP is full of Bigots and Ignoramuses…

    Some have said that this bill adds income to SSI, it does not, but then SSI is considered non-taxable for Income Taxes by both the IRS and SSA, both the IRS and SSA have and are underfunded in a back door attack on both agencies by the GOP in Congress and yes people who get SSI pay taxes, just not income taxes, unless they have some small income to go along with SSI, the income disregards are from 1972 and treat income harshly, just like the GOP wants…


    Rep Price of (R-Georgia) controls the House Ways & Means Committee.
    Sen Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) controls the Senate Finance Committee.

    Introduced in House (05/19/2015)
    Introduced in Senate (05/19/2015)

    Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2015

    Amends title XVI (Supplemental Security Income) (SSI) of the Social Security Act (SSA) to increase from $240 to $1,344 (increased for inflation each calendar year after 2016) the first amount of general income per year excluded in determining SSI program eligibility.

    Increases from $780 to $4,368 (similarly increased) the first amount of earned income similarly excluded (including for a blind or disabled individual or spouse under age 65).

    Sets at: (1) $15,000 in calendar year 2016 (increased for inflation) the resource limit for couples, and (2) $10,000 in calendar year 2016 (similarly increased) the resource limit for individuals without a spouse.

    Prescribes an inflation adjustment in benefits in any calendar year after 2016.

    Removes support and maintenance furnished in kind from determination of unearned income.

    Repeals the administrative penalty which renders individuals (and spouses) ineligible for SSI for a certain period of time if after the look-back date (usually 36 months preceding their application for SSI) they dispose of their resources for less than market value.{/Quote}

  2. zoom314 says:

    Here’s the proper link to S.1387, instead of the truncated link above.

  3. zoom314 says:

    As to living comfortably, most of the SSI income I get is spent on housing, the rest on other needed things, like new clothes, repairing stuff like a Car or TV or a PC or paying property taxes(I have all 3, all 3 are a necessity here), but then Republicans don’t know what they talk about, since they refuse to live under SSI’s limits and rules for even a month, so they remain a bunch of ignorant and opinionated rich people who don’t know what they talk about, as usual.

  4. aravitz12 says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you for this post, both for introducing me to the Census report and for extricating some of the more key numbers.

    What conservatives and opponents to federal support systems either forget or choose to ignore is that these programs, by providing financial stability, can actually promote work. It is nearly impossible to find a job if you are homeless, for example, or cannot pay your water bill. This money also is often used to pay for expensive childcare that allows parents to work or continue their education (without childcare support, the expense of providing childcare is prohibitive; unemployment is actually more cost-effective in many instances).

    The numbers in the Census report bear out this theory, to a certain extent. The numbers of people with one or more years of college education who used supportive services grew during the four years of the study and is not an insignificant percentage (9.6 percent in 2012).

    Furthermore, almost fifty percent of people with full-time employment used services from a program for less than a year, as did a third of unemployed people (suggesting that they used the services only as long as necessary before resuming work and increasing their income to livable levels).

    So again, thank you for pointing me to a place where I can use numbers to support my belief in the relevance and necessity of funding supportive services.

    Anya (http://onthemargins.net/)

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    And thank you, Anya, for adding an important perspective and relevant numbers.

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