September 15, 2015

SNAP, Medicaid, Section 8. Many of us recognize the names of the various public benefits available in the United States whether or not we have used them. However, if we haven?t had to access them, we may not have a clear picture of their function and scope ? or the challenges that come with trying to navigate through them. The collection of programs is designed to help not only those living in poverty, but also those living near poverty achieve a basic standard of living. The largest federal programs to help low-income individuals and families are:

  • Food Stamps, now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicaid and the Children?s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Childcare Tax Credit (CTC)
  • Childcare Subsidies
  • Housing Assistance

These programs tend to raise strong opinions and stereotypes of those served, but many Americans don?t have a clear understanding of the actual scope and restrictions of these benefits. For example, most families receiving SNAP do not receive cash welfare (90 percent), more than half of recipients are children or the elderly, and fraud is at an all-time low.(1)? In reality, these programs offer a very low level of assistance to only a fraction of those eligible. A full-time working mom with two children, earning the federal minimum wage, may be eligible for benefits because her income is only 70 percent of the poverty line, but added assistance will still not bring her above the poverty line. And if she did get laid off, her TANF check (if she is lucky enough to be one of the two in five applicants served) would only put her family at 50% of the poverty line.

The American safety net system faces extensive gaps which can be broken down into three categories.

The coverage gap, where eligible families do not receive benefits due to funding shortages or lack of accessibility, is remarkably large. Check out these statistics(2):

  • Someone seeking benefits from the 11 largest programs has to visit 6 offices and complete 8 different
    applications. (Pretty challenging if you work full time, have no car, and have to pay for child care!)
  • One in four working families below the poverty line receives no benefits.
  • Only seven percent of eligible families participate in multiple programs.
  • One in six eligible families receives child care subsidies due to lack of funding.
  • TANF serves less than 40 percent of eligible participants.

If you can snag some of these limited benefits, they certainly aren?t enough to provide a cushy middle class existence.? In addition to the coverage gap, the hardship gap refers to families that receive benefits but still fall short of a basic standard of living (see levels received below), and the eligibility gap applies to low-income families who earn too much to qualify but not enough to be self-sufficient. In Washington State, of families living below a basic needs budget, 65.4% are ineligible for SNAP, 81% for housing assistance, and half for Medicaid!

An important aspect of these gaps is benefit cliffs, the term used to discuss the rapid loss of various benefit eligibility with an increase in income. If a family?s income increases by a small amount, they may lose several benefits at once, leaving them with a lower total income than before their pay raise! In our next post we will discuss some common benefit cliffs for specific family sizes and income levels, but for now, explore the realities of benefit levels for families, pulled from SJI?s report on benefit cliffs.


1. “SNAP: Frequently Asked Questions.” Snap To Health. Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Web. 25 June 2015.