Safety Net Programs Lift Many Thousands of DC Residents Out of Poverty

I’ve recently blogged on several pieces of the safety net — in all cases, what they do and/or could do for low-income people nationwide. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities drills down to state-level anti-poverty effects for six major federal programs.

Here’s what we learn for the District of Columbia, plus a bonus on the presumptive health effects of two related programs that the federal measure the Center adapts doesn’t count as part of household income.

The federal programs, plus what the District funds lift roughly 82,000 residents over the poverty line each year. Without them, nearly a third would fall below it, as would an eye-popping 47% of children.

Social Security reportedly accounts for an estimated 32,000 fewer poor residents — and a nearly 24% drop in the senior poverty rate.

This probably understates the program’s anti-poverty impacts because it doesn’t capture the number of children who don’t themselves receive Social Security benefits, but live in households where at least one other member does.

The report I recently summarized includes them. If its findings apply in the District, the total number of residents lifted out of poverty would increase by roughly 17%.

The Census Bureau’s better poverty measure consistently shows that Social Security lifts more people out of poverty than any safety net program. The Center, however, finds that housing assistance has a greater anti-poverty impact in the District.*

An estimated 43,000 more residents would count as poor without it, the fact sheet says. A random check of state fact sheets suggests that housing assistance has a far greater relative impact here.

Much as we want more local funds committed to housing for poor and near-poor residents, we can, I think, credit the District’s own housing voucher program for at least part of the difference — not only from individual states, but nationwide.

SNAP (the food stamp program) has the next largest anti-poverty impact in the District. It lifts an estimated 28,000 residents over the poverty line — and benefits roughly five times as many.

Here too, we can partly credit local policies. The District, for example, has opted for broad-based categorical eligibility, which makes more people potentially eligible. It’s also eliminated the cap on assets like money in the bank.

And it boosted Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance benefits when Congress raised the minimum required for a standard deduction from gross income, thus protecting some residents from benefits cuts.

Moving down the list, we learn that Supplemental Security Income lifts an estimated 17,000 residents over the poverty line. They’re all very low-income seniors and younger people with severe disabilities.

But SSI alone wouldn’t lift even a single person over the poverty line. The maximum benefit this year, like last totals $8,796 — $3,084 less than the applicable poverty line.

Last and (to me) surprisingly least, the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lift an estimated 14,000 District residents out of poverty. The former almost surely has the greater impact, for reasons I’ve recently explained.

And its impact may be greater than the figure that enters into the Center’s total because the source it pulls from apparently includes only the federal EITC. The District, like 22 states supplements that with its own refundable version.

You’ll note that the Center’s analysis omits a well-known safety net program. Good reason fro that. Cash benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families wouldn’t lift any participant over the poverty line.

The District, which recently increased its TANF benefits, will soon provide a three-person family with a maximum of $504 per month — or 30% of the applicable poverty line.

I’m stressing, as I often do, the over-limited cash and near-cash assistance our major safety net programs provide. But we’ve got two brighter spots in the picture.

One is the bonus I mentioned. That’s the health insurance the District provides through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which it’s converted to part of its Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid or CHIP cover an estimated 270,000 District residents, including roughly 58,000 children. That’s slightly over half of all under-18 year olds.

What’s missing here are the low-income residents covered, though with fewer benefits by the DC Healthcare Alliance, a program funded solely by the District.

Alliance participants are mostly undocumented immigrants now, plus some who’ve got the paperwork, but haven’t lived in the country long enough to qualify for Medicaid. Including them would add roughly 14,500 to the total in the healthcare safety net.

The second bright spot is that the safety net programs do more than relieve specific hardships — hunger, for example, and homelessness. They provide a modicum of the stability that everyone needs to focus their minds and energies on gainful work, job searches, training or education.

At the same time, they give children a better start in life. Kids in families with benefits do better in school. They’re more likely to go on to college, some studies show, and for this and others reasons are less likely to join the ranks of poor adults.

Research and advocacy organizations have made this case for a long time. What’s new, to my knowledge, are the state-specific figures that provide a basis for defending Social Security and our major safety-net programs as demonstrably effective anti-poverty measures.

The Center didn’t crunch all those numbers now just because it’s got the expert staff to do it. “We’re in the midst of big policy debates,” as a letter I got from its president says. He’s referring to the upcoming elections — for state-level offices, as well as national.

I’ll resist the temptation to elaborate. Will just note what the Center’s fact sheets drive home. There’s a lot at stake for poor and near-poor people in America this November. Some very progressive folks would do well to consider them.

* The fact sheet says that Social Security lifts more District residents above the poverty line than any other program. This is boilerplate that apparently escaped the editor’s eye.





5 Responses to Safety Net Programs Lift Many Thousands of DC Residents Out of Poverty

  1. Victor Bobier says:

    On the SSI part of the Safety Net, at least in CA, California is doing something about it, so far AB1584 has passed in the
    Asm Appropriations (16-0, 4 not voting)
    Asm Human Services (6-0, 1 not voting)
    Assembly (76-0, 4 votes not voting), and now has passed in the State Senate, Human Services(5-0), in the Appropriations Committee(7-0), currently the bill is in the Suspense File, before going to a Senate Floor Vote, after that the bill is off to the Governor for either a Veto, or a Signature, or He could leave the bill on His desk unsigned for 10 days to become state law, the State Legislature possibly has the votes for an override of a veto on this bill(AB-1584).

    Plus there is a Companion Resolution to end California’s Cash Out Policy in regards to SSI Recipients and SNAP, CA SSI recipients could get Food Stamps(I think do to My efforts on this bill, maybe, I did suggest this in a phone call), this is AJR-35, it passed 80-0 in the Assembly, in the State Senate.

    Asm Appropriations (20-0)
    Asm Human Services (6-0, 1 not voting)
    Assembly (80-0), and now has passed in the State Senate, Human Services(5-0), Be adopted and be ordered to the Consent Calendar.

    Floor votes in the State Senate are scheduled to happen after 08-12-2016, from what I’ve read.

  2. Yes, federal programs have had a significant impact on poverty in DC, going further than our local elected government has implemented. The biggest cause of child poverty is the low TANF income benefit which Kathryn has pointed out will soon go to 30%, MD’s present benefit, of the federal poverty level (FPL) for recipients under 60 months.. According to Kidcount, in 2014 the child poverty rate in DC was 26% (29,000 children) (,36,868,867,133/any/321,322), while the source apparently being cited here gives a rate of 18.8 % (Fact sheet available at:, which looks like the overall poverty rate. What is not mentioned is the fact that TANF income benefits for 13,000 children were just reduced for a one year extension to 9% of the FPL. Councilmember Nadeau has a bill to provide exemptions for many of these children, but the fact remains that DC government has a shockingly bad record with respect to the welfare of children. We should focus our attention on eliminating child poverty asap, which means in the very near future, given the real tax base of DC.

    David Schwartzman
    SC member, FBC

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    Very low TANF cash benefits are surely a factor, though not the only one. We do, I think, need to get a better handle on the divers, interacting causes of child poverty in DC. That would inform the policies you’re advocating.

    Kids Count uses the official poverty measure. The Center adapts the Supplemental Poverty Measure. That accounts for the discrepancy.

  4. Thanks for your clarification regarding the child poverty rate. I submit that the biggest single impact that DC government could make in eliminating child poverty is raising the TANF income support rate to at the very least the FPL.

  5. Typo, should read “raising the TANF income support to at the very least the FPL”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s