The good news is that spending on programs to help needy Americans has increased. The bad news is that some of the neediest are actually getting less assistance.
A forthcoming paper from Robert A. Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, finds that spending on the 15 largest social safety net programs increased by 74 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 1975 and 2007. But much of that money shifted from the very poorest, those with incomes at 50 percent of the poverty line, to the more well off, such as those making 200 percent of the poverty line. This means that today, a family of four that makes under $12,000 a year likely got less assistance than a similar family making $47,700.
Meanwhile, single parents, who often struggle more financially than married ones, are also getting less while married ones get more. Single parents who weren’t disabled or under the age of 62 got 20 percent less aid in 2004 than in 1983. And even among that group, the least well off saw the biggest drop: single parent families living at 50 percent of the poverty line saw their assistance fall by 35 percent, while those with incomes above that level actually saw an increase of 73 percent.
There was also a shift in benefits to those who Americans tend to see as the “deserving” poor. Moffitt said he found that the public and the government have preferred that aid go to those who work, are married, and who have kids, and that more assistance is also going to the elderly and disabled rather than the young and able bodied. The elderly got 20 percent more assistance in 2004 than in 1983. The programs with the most growth were those that serve specific groups: the Earned income Tax Credit (EITC), which is only available to working people, the Child Tax Credit for families with children, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that helps the elderly, blind, and disabled.
In another paper, Moffitt also found that while safety net programs grew and Congress passed temporary expansions to meet the increased need caused by the Great Recession, and that spending went to a larger swath of people, it still rose more for those living above the poverty line than those below it.
While targeted programs like the EITC and SSI have expanded, others have not fared as well. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare cash assistance, is the only program that able bodied, young, poor single mothers can enroll in besides food stamps. But Congress reformed that program in the 1990s, changing it to a block grant program that incentivizes states to reduce the number of people enrolled. And those incentives have worked. At its peak, the former program served 5.1 million households, but just 1.9 million were enrolled in 2010. That’s not because poverty decreased, however. In 1996, before welfare reform, 72 percent of poor families with children got welfare benefits. In 2012, just 26 percent did. And the benefits themselves are now nearly all worth less than they were in the 90s.
This tattered government safety net for single mothers is actually why so many of them live in poverty in the U.S. as compared to other developed countries, which have much more generous supports.