Mixed Results from Public Supports for Low-Income, Unemployed Parents

How effectively do federal supports help children and families, especially low-income ones, during times of parental unemployment? A new report looked for answers by tracking seven programs during the Great Recession and beyond..

Stu Kantor skantor@urban.org, (202) 261-5283

WASHINGTON, DC, May 8, 2014 -- How effectively do federal supports help children and families, especially low-income ones, during times of parental unemployment?

Despite the $91 billion in federal funds spent on unemployment insurance (UI) in 2012, millions of unemployed parents failed to benefit, according to “Public Supports When Parents Lose Work,” a new report by the Urban Institute’s Julia Isaacs and Olivia Healy.

Low-income, unemployed parents had particularly low coverage rates, with only 25 percent of their children aided by UI, compared with 41 percent of children from higher-income families.

Lacking access to monthly cash assistance, many low-income families turned to nutrition assistance programs. Fifty-eight percent of children with unemployed parents lived in families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and 65 percent lived in families participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

Isaacs and Healy tracked seven programs during the Great Recession and beyond: UI, the earned income tax credit, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP, NSLP, and the Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

Only 5 percent of children with low-income, unemployed parents received no public support from any of these programs. This figure drops to 1 percent among poor children. Higher-income children tended to live in families that received UI or no public support. These families might turn to private sources, such as their earnings, savings or retirement accounts, credit cards, payday and pawnshop loans, or money from family or friends.

At the peak of the Great Recession (2009), 13.3 million children had an unemployed parent. Some 7.7 million faced the dual risks of parental unemployment and low family income. Three years later, 10.9 million children were still affected by parental unemployment, with 6.9 million residing in low-income homes.

“Public Supports When Parents Lose Work” is a publication of the Urban Institute’s Low-Income Working Families project, which is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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