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What if we actually fully funded and used all federal anti-poverty program benefits?

[Note: If you're not familiar with the acronyms or federal programs they represent, see the table on page 8 of the Urban Institute report.]

In today's (Friday, September 22, 2023) Sacramento Bee is an interesting editorial, "America's Safety Net Isn't Working", from the editors of Bloomberg Opinion. (If you can't access the Bee, there's a publication free with ads at The Richmond Times-Dispatch.) It basically presents the findings of a study published at the Urban Institute last month: "A Safety Net with 100 Percent Participation: How Much Would Benefits Increase and Poverty Decline?" The study uses a modeling tool to predict what would happen if Congress fully funded US anti-poverty programs (SSI, SNAP, WIC, housing programs, and more) and if all those eligible used their benefits. They conclude that benefits people receive would more than double, that the overall poverty rate would drop by 1/3 (from ~15% to ~10%) and that the child poverty rate would be cut almost in half (from 15% to 8 1/2 %). The study's project page (if you don't care to read the 49 page report) lets you view conclusions by state. The California report shows first of all that about 20% of available SSI and SNAP benefits are not being claimed by eligible recipients. The reductions in overall poverty and child poverty rates is much larger than the national numbers, above.

So why aren't we using all this additional money? It's important to understand what this study is predicting. According to the study, only SSI and SNAP are "entitlements", meaning that eligible people have a right to these benefits and funds are allocated for all who meet the criteria. In other words, no one will be told "Sorry, we can't give you any SNAP food assistance this month because we've run out of money." Urban Institute reports that WIC is like an entitlement because adequate funds have been allocated every year to pay the benefits to everyone who is eligible. Other programs like housing subsidies, child-care subsidies, energy assistance are funded but to a dollar amount that could not provide the benefits to all those eligible. So people can receive these benefits until that year's funds run out. Why aren't these programs fully funded? Political persuasion undoubtedly plays a big role, but the Bloomberg editorial claims over a trillion dollars of US federal spending goes to anti-poverty programs already, so cost is also an important factor.

It's also important to note that lack of funds is not the only reason people don't use benefits, also explained in the report. For instance, someone may have a section 8 voucher for housing assistance, but if the family cannot find affordable housing that meets their need AND whose landlord is willing to accept section 8 vouchers, then the benefit will not be used. A parent working night shifts may not be able to find a child care provider during the night who also accepts CCDF payments. Additionally, people may feel the amount of their benefit is not worth the restrictions that come with it. Or don't want to use benefits because of a perceived negative stigma. Etc. So the study's scenario of fully funded programs and 100% participation by those eligible is not practical, but is rather the best-case possibility. Still, the present data and predicted effects for various scenarios, and by state, are important to consider.

[submitted by Mike Cushing]

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