The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 5, 2018

New evidence shows the safety net reduces Americans’ material hardship by 48 percent

The American economy has seen strong growth and low unemployment, but many families continue to struggle.

A recent Urban Institute study (based on data from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey) found that 4 in 10 nonelderly Americans had trouble playing for housing, food, utilities, or health care in 2017.

Our study released today found that the social safety net is one tool to help Americans cope with these challenges. Using multiple panels from the US Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, we find that participation in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or public health insurance reduces the number of hardships low-income families with children experience by 48 percent and reduces the share who experience food insufficiency by 72 percent.

Our research focuses on three measures of material hardship: food insufficiency, unmet medical or dental need, and number of hardships experienced. These hardship measures paint a more nuanced picture of people’s well-being than poverty, which focuses on people’s income, not their experiences.

Food insufficiency measures whether people had to cut back their food consumption because of a lack of money in the past four months. (We focus on food insufficiency instead of the more commonly used food insecurity measure because food insecurity is not available for the early years of our analysis. Food-insufficient households are more similar to households with “very low food security” than the broader group of food-insecure households.)

Unmet medical or dental need measures whether people needed to go to the doctor or dentist but could not afford to in the past 12 months.

Number of hardships captures the number of times the family could not make rent or mortgage payments, was evicted, could not pay utility bills, had utility service cut, had phone service cut, had unmet medical or dental need, experienced food insufficiency, and had any general report of not meeting essential expenses.

Our research suggests that hardship would be even more prevalent without safety net programs, which have counteracted uneven economic growth over the past several decades. Work is an important element in families’ economic well-being, but having a job—particularly a low-wage job—often isn’t enough to keep families on solid footing. Most SNAP participants work, for example, and this research shows that these added resources lessen family struggles.

Economic inequality has risen markedly, putting additional strain on low-income families, whose real wages have largely stagnated as the cost of basic needs, such as housing and health care, have risen substantially. Thus, despite economic growth, many economic forces still work against families, which underscores the need to reduce poverty and material hardship.

Efforts to restrict access to or reduce funding for the safety net, which can lead to Americans losing SNAP or Medicaid benefits, could exacerbate hunger and people’s inability to afford medical care. These restrictions are often proposed as a means to address the federal deficit, but the safety net’s role in reducing hunger and hardship demonstrates the risks of these proposals. These risks are not just borne by today’s struggling families; because these families include children, the risks affect tomorrow’s adults.

Valencia Terrell arrives with her grandchild to stay temporarily at a friend's home on August 26, 2015 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She gets by with the aid of SNAP and takes her family members to a soup kitchen for additional meals. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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