Public programs are intended to provide a temporary safety net for struggling families. A report recently released by the United States Census Bureau takes a look at the characteristics and participation rates of individuals who utilize public programs including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and General Assistance (GA). As a longitudinal study, the report was able to examine entry and exit from programs on an individual basis and changes in the population of individuals in a particular program over time.
As far as general participation, approximately 52.2 million people (21.3% of the population) participated in at least one means-tested assistance program in 2012. The average monthly participation rate for Medicaid and SNAP was 15.3% and 13.4% respectively.
Children continue to make up a significant portion of public program participants, with those under the age of 18 participating at 39.2% in 2012 compared to adults aged 18-64 at just 16.6%. Trends can be seen in participation rates when it comes to educational attainment as well. In 2012, the average monthly participation in a means-tested assistance program for those who did not graduate high school was 37.3% compared to the 21.6% of high school graduates and 9.6% of individuals who completed at least 1 year of college.
The report also discussed the duration that individuals stayed on public assistance programs and highlighted that they majority of families are using programs as a temporary safety net as intended. Most people who utilized a government program did so for less than 3 years. Between 2009 and 2012, about 56% of the 52.2 million Americans that participated in public programs stopped their participation in the program within 36 months. Nearly a third of participants quit receiving benefits within one year.
Analyzing this type of data is important in ensuring that public assistance programs are providing the temporary assistance to those in need as they intend to. If data shows that individuals are needing the assistance of public benefit programs longer than expected, we can begin to ask why. Perhaps, this individual faces the cliff effect situation in which accepting a raise at their job would cost them their SNAP benefits and their ability to feed their children. Perhaps, the gap between being able to afford private health insurance coverage and qualifying for Medicaid keeps someone from obtaining self-sufficiency in this area. Examining the data on public benefit participation can help us set up these systems to benefit individuals in the short-term and allow them to build up their self-sufficiency and economic stability long-term.