The Benefits of Public Benefits: Part One

Photo by Viki Mohamad on Unsplash

Social aid programs in the United States have filled policy gaps and supported millions of individuals and families since their creation in 1935. Utilizing public benefits generally increases overall well-being, has a positive ripple effect on families, and makes the average family receiving public benefits in the United States more stable.

Connective, 2022.

Unemployment Benefits

After an unexpected job loss, layoff, or reduction in hours, many households struggle to keep budgets stable with a portion of income missing. To supplement, they utilize unemployment benefits. Most states offer a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits with job search conditions, but during the COVID-19 pandemic and the passing of the CARES Act, these benefits temporarily expanded, adding an extra $600 a week to benefit checks and extending the maximum by 13 weeks. The expansion decreased poverty rates overall, but it had the most significant impact on children — the number of children living in poverty fell by 1.4 million in 2020 under expanded unemployment benefits for their parents and guardians.

SNAP & WIC

In addition, the use of supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP) lowers food insecurity for individuals and families across the country. According to a piece published in the American Journal of Public Health, SNAP recipients are up to 45% less likely to be food insecure than eligible non-recipients. This reduction in food insecurity among SNAP users has a ripple effect across individual and family health– opening up access to fresh food provides a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, and proteins in the family diet. The benefits even begin at birth. Recent studies have found that children whose parents use supplemental nutrition programs for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have better quality diets at 24 months than their non-recipient peers, leading to improved health outcomes. Better access to nutrition can also lead to better health outcomes — SNAP users have slightly lower healthcare costs than non-users, spending about 25% less annually on medical bills.

CHIP & Medicaid

Similarly, children covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicaid are more likely to receive better medical preventative care. Adults feel the benefit of insurance access, too — those parents covered under Medicaid have improved access to care. This improved access is essential to their children because “children’s health and development depend partly on their parent’s health and well-being.

Advanced Child Tax Credit pilot program

Even recent emergency assistance measures like the American Rescue Plan’s Advanced Child Tax Credit program pilot in 2021 significantly impact a family’s economic stability. The program lifted a quarter of a million Texas children from poverty between 2020 and 2021– more than 2 million children nationally.

Families who received the advance child tax credit payments ($300 per month per child under 6) primarily use the extra funds to supplement their income, not replace it. Eighty-three percent of recipient families in a mid-sized survey said they used the additional check for household expenses like electricity and food. Families also had more wiggle room to save for emergencies, pay for childcare, and start college funds. Even though the pilot program only lasted six months, families regularly felt the relief of unspecified, direct cash assistance.

Despite the overall success of these programs, millions of dollars in public assistance go unclaimed each year. Philadelphia-based technology nonprofit Benefits Data Trust (BDT) estimates that over a billion public aid dollars are left on the table annually in Dallas County. Next month, BDT will release data showing how underutilized public benefits are in Harris County. With that data, we’ll be able to collectively envision a tailored approach to address current Harris County needs, determine why public benefits are underused, and build for the specific reasons these dollars are going untapped.

Next month, we’ll explore why public benefits are underutilized and what we can do about it.

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