Are Families with Children Covered by Safety Net Programs?

By Julia Isaacs :: March 28th, 2013


As I reported yesterday, 6.2 million children lived in families with at least one unemployed parent in an average month of 2012. This post explores the extent to which children with unemployed parents are covered by unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and other safety net programs.

It turns out that a small proportion—36 percent—of children whose parents were unemployed in 2011 lived in families that received UI benefits. In fact, an issue brief released earlier this week found that children living with at least one unemployed parent were more likely to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (39 percent) than UI benefits (see figure below).

Yet SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) do not provide families as much support as UI benefits: in July 2012, SNAP monthly benefits averaged about $278 per household, less than the average weekly benefit of $299 for unemployment benefits (the monthly equivalent of $1,286).

As shown in the figure below, the 36 percent with UI benefits includes 24 percent who receive UI benefits alone and 12 percent who receive a combination of UI benefits with SNAP or TANF benefits. More than one-fourth (29 percent) of children living with unemployed parent turn to SNAP and/or TANF because they do not receive any UI benefits. And more than a third (35 percent) did not receive assistance from any of these three major benefits.

Providing broader coverage to unemployed parents and their children would require modernizing the unemployment insurance system, beyond the initial reforms adopted by states under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In the modern age, factory work has been replaced by service-sector jobs. Many workers do not face formal layoffs, but instead leave service-sector jobs after struggling to combine erratic hours with family responsibilities. Denial of UI benefits after such “voluntary” quits contributes to low coverage rates, according to research by H. Luke Shaefer. As he notes, one way to expand access—yet guard against encouraging workers to casually quit their jobs—would be to ban benefits for a certain period (perhaps 4 to 12 weeks) after voluntary quits, rather than throughout the total spell of unemployment. Public outreach and reforming the application process also could help address low take-up rates among eligible workers.

It will be hard to persuade state legislatures to expand access to benefits, given the strain on state unemployment trust funds during this recession. In fact, current policy debates focus on whether to cut safety net programs. For example, the budget resolution the House passed last week would cut SNAP benefits by $135 billion, or 18 percent, over the next 10 years. If enacted, such cuts would weaken a critical support to children of the unemployed.


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