Safety net programs provide critical support to people during times of economic hardship. Yet the reach and coverage of the safety net, particularly in times of increased need and among economically disadvantaged groups, is not well understood. The U.S. safety net directs resources to address specific needs, and little is known about the share of people who access multiple programs in the social safety net. This pre-pandemic analysis presents a baseline look at the reach of the safety net, including the interaction of programs, to form the basis for future comparisons to the pandemic timeframe and as the economy recovers.
Key points include:
- In 2019, 99.1 million people participated in one of the 10 safety net programs discussed in this brief, representing 30 percent of the U.S. population.
- More than one in four working-age adults (27 percent) and nearly one of every two children (49 percent) participate in a safety net program.
- Nearly one in eight adults (12 percent) and one in three children (33 percent) participate in multiple safety net programs. The most common programs in such bundles include either Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
- Nearly three-quarters of low income people—defined as those with income below 200 percent of the poverty level—participated in at least one program (74 percent). Among children in low income families, 94 percent participated in at least one program.
- Among the largest racial and ethnic origin groups, we found many commonalities in bundles of programs. For each racial and ethnic origin group, among people in low income families with children, the top five bundles were populated by some combination of programs from among child support services, EITC, LIHEAP, Medicaid, or SNAP.
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