Social safety net catching fewer of America’s neediest, study finds

BY Anya van Wagtendonk  May 6, 2014 at 3:03 PM EST
Applicants for food stamps wait in line in Rochester, New York. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Applicants for food stamps wait in line in Rochester, New York. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Although U.S. welfare spending has shot up in the last three decades, it is helping fewer of America’s poorest citizens, says a new study out of Johns Hopkins University.

Welfare programs are increasingly geared toward slightly higher earners, as well as to two-parent families, the elderly and the disabled.

The U.S. spends more on social assistance programs now than ever before in its history, with an increase of 74 percent (adjusted for inflation) over three decades.

But between 1983 and 2004, aid levels to the lowest-earning single-parent families – some 2.5 million total across the country earning 50 percent below the poverty line – dropped 35 percent. Meanwhile, aid for families in slightly higher earning brackets rose 74 percent.

That means, in 2014 dollars, “a family of four earning $11,925 a year likely got less aid than a same-sized family earning $47,700,” according to the report.

This is due in part to the specialized nature of those welfare programs growing the most. For example, the Supplemental Security Income program, which only assists the elderly and disabled, and the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which only supports the employed, have expanded in the past thirty years, as opposed to programs that cast a broader net.

Lead researcher Robert A. Moffitt, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Economics at JHU, said this reflects a shift toward supporting Americans based on seeming merit, rather than direct numeric need.

“The decline of support to families with non-employed members and to single parents seems to be rooted in the presumption that they have not taken personal responsibility for their own situation,” he said.