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Assessing the Evidence about Work Support Benefits and Low-Income Families

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Document date: February 24, 2011
Released online: February 24, 2011


For low-income working parents, benefits received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and child care subsidies provide vital work support. Access to these programs has been restricted, however, by barriers relating to federal and state funding, program policy, and administrative process, complicating program enrollment and benefit retention. As a result, many low-income working families do not receive the multi-program benefits for which they are eligible. This paper provides a strong rationale for the Work Support Strategies demonstration, enabling selected states to design, implement, and evaluate modernization strategies to dramatically improve families' access to a package of work support benefits.

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Even in good economic times, low-wage earners make up more than a quarter of working Americans. In 2001, an estimated 27 percent of nonelderly workers earned an hourly wage below that required for a full-time, year-round worker to keep a family of four out of poverty (Acs, Loprest, and Ratcliffe 2010). Almost half of these low-wage workers live in low-income working families, meaning families whose total income is less than twice the federal poverty line ($44,100 for a family of four in 2010). In these families, parents are working and raising a family yet often barely making it from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make ends meet, and just a car breakdown or home repair away from a disaster. For example, in 2001, low-income working families were twice as likely as middle-income families to report difficulty paying for food, twice as likely to lack health insurance, and half again as likely to miss a rent, mortgage, or utility payment (Acs and Nichols 2006). Since 2008, the numbers of low-income working families have risen dramatically, as the great recession and the continuing economic slowdown have hit families hard.

This paper homes in on one strategy that the United States has chosen to help these families stabilize their lives and employment and provide for their children: public work support programs that supplement paychecks and help low-income working parents afford food, health care, and child care. The paper's goal is to address three large questions, summarizing for each one both what researchers have already found out and what gaps in the evidence remain. First, how well do health, nutrition, and child care subsidy programs (individually and as an integrated package) reach low-income working families? Second, what benefits do families gain from participating in the programs, including short-term benefits, such as meeting day-to-day needs, and longer-term benefits, such as more stable work and higher earnings? Third, what benefits accrue to state agencies if they modernize their approach to program administration, within individual programs and across programs?

The paper's broad scope, cutting across the three domains of health, nutrition, and child care benefits, corresponds to the goals of the Work Supports Strategies demonstration, described more fully at the end of this paper. WSS will support a select group of states to design and then implement a plan for modernizing program delivery in Medicaid/CHIP, SNAP, and CCDBG; to help families get and keep access to the full package of benefits for which they are eligible; and to reduce their own administrative burdens. This basic design has grown out of some findings reported in this paper, such as the role that health, nutrition, and child care subsidies can play in supporting families' stable employment. At the same time, because WSS will include a rigorous evaluation, it will allow for states not only to test the best available knowledge but to fill in major current knowledge gaps along the way.

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Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Employment | Families and Parenting | Health/Healthcare | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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