Poverty and the safety-net: SNAP works

Poverty continues to impact 1 in 5 North Carolinians, according to 2012 Census Bureau Data released last week. The extent of poverty would be far greater without the safety net and work supports, however. This post is part of a blog series that will explain how the new poverty data demonstrates the important role public programs play and the need for continued support.

Widespread poverty and stagnant living standards have become the status quo in North Carolina, according to the Budget and Tax Center’s analysis of Census data released last week. 2012 marked yet another year of the official economic recovery whereby the gains of economic growth passed over low- and moderate-income North Carolinians. High rates of hardship are persisting because of the state’s ongoing job shortage and the rapid acceleration of low-wage work that fails to provide a pathway to the middle class.

There is some good news in the Census data, however. The poverty rate would have been much worse if public policies weren’t in place to provide a necessary safety net. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the programs that is lifting millions of families out of poverty and helping them meet basic needs. If not for SNAP, 4 million additional Americans—many of whom are children—would have been in poverty in 2012. Similar data is not available at the state-level but we do know that nearly half of all SNAP participants in North Carolina are children (see chart below).

These findings are particularly noteworthy given the deep benefit cuts to SNAP that are on the horizon come November 1st and efforts from conservatives in Congress to severely cut the program. Put simply, cutting SNAP—and other safety net programs—will increase economic hardship for families and children as parents face difficult tradeoffs between food and other essential needs like rent, utilities, and child care.

Pie Chart of Who Uses SNAP, September 2013

Cuts to the SNAP program may reduce the short-term deficit but will yield significantly greater societal costs down the road. Sheldon Danziger, President of the Russel Sage Foundation, explained why in the NY Times last week:

“SNAP benefits not only reduce food insecurity and poverty this year; they also reduce poverty in the next generation. Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families’ access to food stamps improved their infants’ health and birth weight. Children who benefited from the program later posted better health, higher educational attainment, less heart disease and, for women, greater earnings and less reliance on welfare as adults.”

Chipping away at the safety net before the economy fully recovers will only make the day-to-day lives of vulnerable populations more difficult. Until public policies are put in place that close the job shortage, raise wages, and spread the economic gains broadly, keeping a robust safety net system is required to lower and keep poverty in check.

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