Fact of the Week: Safety Net Programs Kept Child Poverty from Skyrocketing during the Great Recession


November 10, 2014

New reports from UNICEF show that child poverty rates increased in the majority of developed countries around the world during the Great Recession, but the social safety net kept U.S. rates steady.
The globally-focused report concluded that 76.5 million children in the world’s richest countries live in poverty, up 2.6 million from 2008. A related paper that focused solely on the U.S. found that safety net programs – and SNAP/food stamps in particular – kept millions of children from falling into poverty in our country during this period.

When researchers looked at household income without government benefits and tax credits (referred to as Private Income in the graph from the paper below), they saw a sharp increase – almost 5 percentage points – in the child poverty rate from 2007-2010, reaching nearly one in four children at its peak. Child poverty increased in 34 states.

They then included in the household income calculation benefits from federal and state government programs like SNAP, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), school lunch programs, housing and energy subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and other stimulus programs like the expansion of unemployment insurance. When these benefits were included (referred to as the After-Tax and After-Transfer Income, or ATTI, in the graph below), the child poverty rate in the U.S. rose by only 0.8 percentage points over the same time period. Several states that had rising child poverty rates when government programs weren’t taken into account actually had falling rates when these benefits were included.

SNAP keeps child poverty in check during recession

 [Source: UNICEF report: Child Poverty and the Great Recession in the United States]

The researchers note that the expansion of the social safety net during the Great Recession had a huge impact on keeping the number of children in poverty steady. Through the stimulus package of 2009 and other efforts, spending on SNAP doubled, maximum food stamp benefits went up, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit were expanded, and unemployment insurance was extended.  The authors conclude that “The safety net as a whole provides significant protection” for vulnerable children and their families, and that “the Food Stamp program expanded importantly in the Great Recession.”

They also note that the safety net now does a better job of serving the working poor than those living in deep poverty (below 50 percent of the poverty line) without jobs, especially because funding for TANF has gone down since the mid-1990s. As a result, children living in extreme poverty have a weaker safety net.

To be sure, much more needs to be done to address child poverty in our country. SNAP, which kept 2.1 million children out of poverty in 2013 alone, showed great success in keeping many more millions of children from being poor during the Great Recession. But as we noted in our 5 Things You Should Know about SNAP post, this critical program is in jeopardy. Increases in benefits enacted in response to the recession were terminated in November 2013, costing a family of four $36 a month. That step backwards is worsening food hardships and reducing SNAP’s antipoverty effectiveness. Congress has made more SNAP cuts since, and threatens more, despite Americans’ support for the program.

Congress will soon return to D.C. for its lame duck session, and they’ll resume work on the budgets for SNAP and other crucial programs for the remainder of this fiscal year. We need to remind them that providing adequate funding for programs that help those who aren’t yet benefiting from our recovering economy is necessary to ensure they aren’t left even further behind.

Budget and Appropriations
child poverty
Fact of the Week
Food and Nutrition
Income Support
Poverty and Income
Social Services
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
White House Summit on Working Families