Urban Wire One in five families will lose resources under administration’s proposed changes to safety net programs
Alexandra Tilsley, Robert Abare
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The congressional budget resolution that paved the way for tax reform legislation assumes large budget cuts to programs that help low- and middle-income families. Additions to the deficit from tax reform and other programs also mean the federal budget will face increasing pressure over the next decade.

As Congress looks to curb spending, proposed changes to key income security programs and across-the-board reductions to discretionary spending outlined in the president’s 2018 budget proposal could be the blueprint for federal spending cuts.

Budget proposals are generally expressed in terms of large aggregate numbers, but policymakers and the public need to understand what those proposals may mean for families.

According to a new Urban Institute analysis, the proposed changes to federal safety net programs in the president’s budget request would affect as many as 29.2 million families, or more than one in five, if all changes were fully implemented in 2018. In total, 72.3 million people would lose resources.

Approximately 80 percent of those families already make less than $30,000 a year and would stand to lose $1,230 a year, on average. Losses come from resources like food assistance, housing vouchers, assistance with heating bills, child care subsidies, and cash benefits for basic needs. More than 8 million of America’s poorest families—those with incomes less than $10,000 annually—would bear about 30 percent of the burden of the reduction in benefits.

number of families affected by proposed changes to safety net programs, by income group

“While our findings show that those earning less than $10,000 are particularly vulnerable, the impact of cuts to millions of families into the $30,000 income range is really striking,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at Urban and a coauthor of the report. “These are the working poor. We need to realize that these cuts could affect a lot of people who are participating in the economy.”

For all families affected by the cuts, losing even a few hundred dollars in assistance could lead to difficult choices. Although the average loss in family resources is $1,230 annually, approximately 2.9 million families are expected to lose at least $2,500 annually, including 1.6 million families with children and 1 million families with a family member who has a disability or is elderly.

“One of the things we know about low-income families is that meeting their basic needs involves making trade-offs,” Waxman said. “So you choose between housing and your food budget. We talk about people’s resources as if they’re in little buckets, but that’s not really how people live. People live in a series of trade-offs. When you squeeze one part, something else is going to go.”

These are the working poor. We need to realize that these cuts could affect a lot of people who are participating in the economy. —Elaine Waxman

The administration’s budget proposes changes to several programs that provide low-income families cash and in-kind assistance. Urban researchers modeled the effects of these proposed spending and policy changes and estimate that $35.8 billion in assistance would be cut, with the neediest families losing the most. 

These cuts come from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and housing assistance. Although LIHEAP would be cut completely under the president’s budget proposal, the other programs would face funding reductions and policy changes.

A strengthening economy may allow some affected families to increase their employment and earnings, buffering the impact of some of the changes. But at least one-third of the families affected contain at least one senior or person with a disability, meaning that many people affected are not among those participating in the workforce, which raises questions about short-term risks for vulnerable families.

The cuts may prove a particular burden to disabled people, who face greater barriers to work. A policy change to SSI means many families with more than one disabled family member would lose an average of $3,030 annually, money they’re unlikely to make up.

As Congress considers the president’s request, Waxman urges policymakers to look closely at the impact cuts would have on the most vulnerable families, to think beyond the silos of the different programs, and to evaluate what states can realistically contribute. (For example, the president’s budget proposal calls for states to shoulder 25 percent of SNAP funding by 2023, a goal many states may struggle to hit.)

“If we don’t carefully examine the impact on the very lowest–income families, then we’re making an uninformed choice about the most vulnerable,” she said.


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Research Areas Social safety net Children and youth Disability equity policy
Tags Families with low incomes Poverty Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Asset and debts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Economic well-being Wealth inequality Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Income and wealth distribution Kids in context Hunger and food assistance
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
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