More than a quarter of the people living in poverty in the United States receive no help from food stamps and other nutrition programs, subsidized housing, welfare and other cash benefits, or child-care assistance, according to a new Urban Institute analysis examining the reach of the social safety net.
The analysis found that 13 million people living below the poverty line — a household income of less than $25,100 a year for a family of four — were disconnected from federal programs for the neediest Americans.
Among the very poorest — for instance, a family of four making less than $13,000 a year — nearly a third receive no benefits from the federal safety net.
“There are a lot of people in this country who are not attached to our major systems of support, and they are in desperate need,” said Gregory Acs, vice president for income and benefits policy at the Urban Institute.
The study found that African Americans were most likely to get assistance; 85 percent of those living in poverty received at least one form of aid. They were followed by poor whites, at 70 percent. Poor Hispanics and Asians were least likely to receive aid, at 66 percent and 67 percent, respectively.
Researchers who study poverty and government assistance suggested various reasons some groups are more likely than others to receive benefits. For instance, studies have shown that low-income white families generally have more resources to fall back on than low-income nonwhite families in times of need.
The assets and net worth of poor African Americans tend to be significantly less than those of whites with similar incomes — leaving them with fewer alternatives to government assistance, said Arloc Sherman, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Families with even a bit of savings — $250 to $750 — are less likely to receive public benefits as a result of job loss, unexpected medical bills and other financial disruptions, said Signe-Mary McKernan, an economist at the Urban Institute.
Whites are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to own homes, have retirement savings and inherit money, even at lower-income levels, she said.
“That’s money that can be used to tide families over in an emergency,” McKernan said.
Beyond family wealth, immigration status and the social stigma surrounding government assistance may also play a role in the gap, researchers said.
Undocumented immigrants — a fifth of whom live in poverty, according to the Pew Hispanic Center— are not eligible to receive benefits.
In Mississippi, where poor whites are twice as likely as their black counterparts to reject or go without federal assistance, advocates for the poor say the racial stigma attached to government help influences lawmakers’ will to expand the safety net. The deeply red state has enacted policies that make it more difficult to get food stamps, cash welfare benefits and child-care assistance, said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.
“There is a real racial undercurrent in our state in attitudes toward public assistance,” said Burnett, who is white. “Public assistance is maligned by white conservative policymakers the same way it is nationally — that it serves as a disincentive, that people are too lazy, that people don’t deserve it — this whole set of descriptors that functions as code language in Mississippi to basically mean black people.”