June 11, 2013

What is the safety net?

June 11, 2013

When we talk about the "safety net", what do we actually mean? Our new interactive tool, the Safety Net Almanac, shows how the eight largest assistance programs serving low-income families work and how enrollment and spending have varied over time. The programs are

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • The earned income tax credit and the child tax credit
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Child Care and Development Fund
  • Housing assistance
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program

What makes the safety net so patchy is that some programs have national eligibility and benefit rules, while rules for others vary from state to state. Some are entitlements that provide benefits for as long as individuals meet the eligibility rules, while others are conditional on government budget limits or are only offered for a limited time. Someone might be able to enroll in a program in one state, but not another.

Comparing the caseload data for TANF and SNAP, for example, shows that TANF caseloads have barely increased since the 2008–2009 recession while SNAP caseloads have skyrocketed. Since TANF is not an entitlement, help does not necessarily expand as family needs increase. SNAP is an entitlement program—meaning that every eligible applicant gets benefits—so caseloads have increased as more families’ incomes dropped below the eligibility threshold.

The Almanac’s interactive graphics allow you to explore national- and state-level caseload and cost trends. It’s a go-to resource for basic program rules and their legislative histories. Users can also download the data for their own analysis.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.