Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

July 20, 2015

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.

More at Stake With the Chained CPI Than Social Security Benefits

January 25, 2013

As perhaps you know, the President’s last comprehensive “fiscal cliff” proposal included the adoption of a new inflation measure — the Chained Consumer Price Index.

We’ve heard about it before, but almost exclusively as a way to curb spending on Social Security retirement benefits. And that’s what we’re hearing most about now.

But what the President proposed was apparently a global switch to the chained CPI, with some unspecified protections for “the most vulnerable.”

Just because Congress decided to punt on the “fiscal cliff” doesn’t mean something of this sort won’t resurface.

In fact, it already has in a bill co-sponsored by Tennessee’s Republican Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.

Like the President’s offer, the Corker-Alexander bill would make the chained CPI the inflation measure used for all federal cost-of-living adjustments.

So it would raise more tax revenues, with the highest percent increases coming from fairly low-income households.

It would also make relatively fewer people eligible for a host of safety net programs and, in some cases, reduce the benefits those still eligible would get, relative to what they could expect if there were no CPI switch.

The same result, of course, for Social Security retirement benefits.

I’ll deal here with the eligibility issue and return to benefit cuts in a separate post. But first, a super-simple primer to set the context.

Chained CPI 101

At this point, the federal government uses the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) to make what are basically cost-of-living adjustments in both the tax code and the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds.

A somewhat different index — the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) — is used to adjust all major federal retirement benefits, including Social Security, and Social Security disability benefits as well.

Both these indexes reflect the prices consumers pay for a set market basket of goods and services. When the average costs of the total go up, so do  the CPIs.

But, say economists, consumers change their purchasing practices when the costs of certain items rise. For example, if the price of beef goes up, they buy less of it and more chicken.

The chained CPI is designed to capture these changes. So the cost-of-living increases it produces are lower than those based on a a market basket that isn’t continuously re-weighted to reflect substitutions.

Eligibility for Safety Net Benefits

More than 30 federal anti-poverty programs based their income cut-offs or targeting on the federal poverty guidelines,* as do some state and local programs.

The federal programs include many we think of as key parts of the safety net, e.g., the food stamp program, other nutrition assistance programs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

The poverty guidelines are simplified versions of the Census Bureau’s official poverty thresholds. These, as I’ve said, are annually adjusted using the CPI-U.

The chained CPI would thus mean smaller upward adjustments in the income cut-offs — not much smaller in any given year, but cumulative over time.

Bad Policymaking

I see at least three problems with the result I’ve just described.

First, the thresholds already significantly understate the number of poor people in this country, as even the Census Bureau’s still-evolving Supplemental Poverty Measure shows.

This is partly because the thresholds are based on an outdated minimum cost-of-living measure — three times the cost of what used to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest food plan.

The annual adjustments compound the problem because the CPI-U understates living-cost increases for households in the bottom fifth of the income scale — or so the research we have suggests.

Use of the chained CPI would thus, as Shawn Fremstad at the Center for Economic and Policy Research says, define deprivation downward, even more than use of the current thresholds do.

At the same time, the living-cost research tells us that the chained CPI probably isn’t more accurate for low-income households — quite the opposite, in fact.

So using it would unjustly exclude even more people from the safety net — assuming the proper measure is insufficient income to pay for basic living needs. And if not that, what?

Finally, the proposed switch to the chained CPI is an underhanded way to make consequential policy changes. And that, as Wonkblogger Dylan Matthews says, is what makes it so attractive.

If our policymakers want to shrink the safety net, then they should say so forthrightly, name the programs and give us the figures — not trot out a supposedly technical change that only the most wonkish among us can understand.

* The official list of programs that use the federal poverty guidelines says that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program doesn’t. This is because states can set income eligibility standards for TANF however they choose. Fourteen expressly use the federal poverty level, which I assume means the guidelines.


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