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The social safety net is typically viewed as a set of government programs designed for the very poor and vulnerable. Nonworkers, the elderly, the disabled, and their children are the groups that come to mind. But what about those who have some income, but might still struggle economically? A new research brief sponsored by the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Group on the Working Class shows that about one-third of them benefit from government safety net programs too, a share that has grown over the past two decades.
In the new report, data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) were used to document the receipt of various government benefits among adults who have a high school education but no college degree and household income between the 20th and 50th percentile. A working group sponsored by Opportunity America, AEI, and the Brookings Institution are exploring various aspects of this group for a report to be released later this year.
From the brief:
Benefit receipt in 2014 among the working-class group was relatively low, with no share receiving benefits topping 17 percent from any one program. The largest shares received Medicaid (16.3 percent) and SNAP (15.7 percent).
However, the share receiving any benefit was more than one-third and had increased over time: “When considering all safety-net programs, 34.8 percent of the working-class sample received some benefit in 2014 compared to 22.7 percent in 1998.”
The data also clearly reflected the influence of the business cycle. Receipt of SNAP, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance increased during the 2007 recession, for all groups explored. However, for Medicaid and SNAP in particular, the share receiving benefits had not returned to prerecession levels, while Unemployment Insurance did (figure below).
Overall, this suggests that government safety net programs are increasingly touching working class lives. It is unclear whether this is due to the business cycle alone, changing composition of the working class, or government policy decisions. What is clear, however, is that any changes to these programs will affect the working class.
Policy discussions over the next year will likely include efforts to slow the growth of these programs, delegate some control to the states, and focus them more on work and program integrity. This analysis shows that the implications of any changes should be considered in the context of how they will affect the poor as well as the working class.