Why the Safety Net Might Not Respond as Effectively to COVID-19 As It Should

COVID-19 Population Health

Over the past two months, the United States has seen a historic increase in unemployment. While some of these jobs quickly will be regained when the public health measures needed to manage the crisis can be relaxed, the unemployment rate will likely remain elevated for several years.

History teaches us that those with low levels of education and earnings, as well as disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities, tend to suffer more during recessions.[1] They experience larger increases in unemployment and regain jobs more slowly than more advantaged groups. For example, even ten years after the 2007-2008 Great Recession, those with less than a college degree had not recovered to their prerecession employment levels.[2] Rates of poverty and food insecurity spiked and remained elevated for at least five years.

In addition to Medicare, Medicaid, and the other important safety net programs that provide health insurance and health care, the United States has a patchwork of programs designed to help families meet their basic needs. Over the past two decades, since President Clinton made good on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” our safety net for the nonelderly (and nondisabled) has shifted primarily to a work-based safety net. And this has implications for how the safety net responds to economic downturns like the one we now face.

A core component of the safety net is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which pays annual refundable tax credits to low-earning working families—but provides no benefit to those who are unemployed. Research has shown that the EITC draws workers into employment, boosting their incomes and lifting millions of people above the poverty line annually.[3] Another core program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—provides monthly vouchers to low-income families regardless of employment status that can be used to purchase food at grocery stores. Overall, more families who participate in safety net programs are also working. In fact, our research has found that all of the increase in overall safety net spending on families with children during the past 25 years has gone to working families.[4]

A well-functioning safety net automatically and quickly responds to increased need, ramping up payments when families face income losses and, in turn, stimulating the economy. SNAP offers a good example: When a family suffers a drop in earnings—due to job loss or reduced hours—its SNAP benefits increase. If the family already is receiving SNAP benefits, its monthly benefit increases to help offset the income loss. Other families that become newly eligible for benefits can enroll and generally will receive initial payments within one month. Importantly, SNAP is an entitlement program and, as demand for the program increases, there are no funding limits due to block grants or other restrictions. Owing to these factors, aggregate SNAP spending expands and contracts with the unemployment rate, providing resources to needy families while also helping stabilize the economy.

One drawback is that relatively few safety net programs are designed like SNAP to increase automatically when unemployment increases, so that those with incomes (after taxes and transfers) near the poverty level are harmed more during recessions than those at higher income levels. Furthermore, with the transition to a work-based safety net, incomes among the most disadvantaged decrease more when unemployment increases, and deep poverty increases more during recessions.[5][6]

What do we know about the stabilizing effects of other elements of the social safety net? Unemployment insurance (UI) payments have increased well beyond historic levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many low-income workers do not qualify for UI benefits because of insufficient work histories.[7] The EITC—the cornerstone of the safety net during good economic times—is not very responsive to economic downturns. Among single-parent families, who form the majority of EITC recipients, a decline in work generally leads to a loss of EITC eligibility or a decline in EITC payments. Among married filers, there is a modest countercyclical response—that is, a decline in family earnings makes them EITC eligible.[8] Prior to welfare reform, the poorest out-of-work families received cash benefits through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which expanded in response to increased need like SNAP does today. AFDC was block-granted in the mid-1990s as part of federal welfare reform, with the result that cash welfare was completely unresponsive to need during the Great Recession.[9] With the powerful exception of SNAP, many low-income families fall through holes in the safety net during recessions.

More recently, there has been growing interest in expanding work requirements in SNAP (and in introducing them in Medicaid). Adults ages 18 to 49 can only receive SNAP for three months unless they also are working at least 20 hours per week. Putting aside the question of whether this is sensible during good economic times, it is unconscionable to withhold basic food assistance (and health care) from the unemployed during a recession. Recognizing this, Congress has long established the ability for states to waive work requirements for SNAP when the unemployment rate is high or when insufficient jobs are available. Work requirements in SNAP were suspended during the Great Recession and SNAP benefits were quickly paid out to the unemployed. The Trump administration, however, has argued that the waivers to work requirements are too permissive and has proposed tightening them to such an extent that the economy would have to be substantially worse before work requirements could be waived. As we face the beginning of a new recession, the acute spike in need underscores the importance of having safety net programs that can provide assistance to the unemployed. Congress has suspended SNAP work requirements until the end of the national health emergency.

In addition to these known drawbacks of a work-based safety net during a recession, there are new factors during the COVID-19 era that raise additional concerns. The widespread school closures deprive approximately 25 million children of subsidized school breakfasts and lunch—programs that typically are the front line of defense against childhood hunger. Because subsidized school meals have higher income eligibility thresholds than SNAP, these programs reach families that are SNAP-ineligible. While many school districts have attempted heroically to feed students despite school closures, only a small number of meals are being distributed at school sites. This loss is undoubtedly putting additional strain on family resources on top of the normal stresses caused by recessions.

Congress wisely authorized a program to address this shortfall named “Pandemic-EBT,” which provides approximately $110 per month in grocery vouchers to families who would have received subsidized school meals if school were in session. States must apply and receive approval from the US Department of Agriculture to implement this important backstop program, which is modeled after a summer feeding program which has been shown to be effective via randomized controlled trials. To date, only a few states have implemented these payments, but the program should remain in place as long as social distancing recommendations are in effect—through summer, when food insecurity spikes as students lose access to school meals, to fall, or beyond.

Another challenge has been the tidal wave of job losses that have come all at once, with states struggling to process new applications for safety net programs. This has been compounded by the surge in demand coupled with states needing to protect the health of their social service workforce through social distancing practices and transitioning to telework. Congress has authorized some temporary measures that states can adopt to help streamline application processes. For example, states may automatically extend eligibility for those currently on SNAP who would have had to recertify during the pandemic, and states may temporarily award participants the maximum SNAP benefit, which reduces the need to collect detailed information about usual expenses that are normally factored into benefits calculations. Unfortunately, these smart policy responses have been authorized for only two to three months but need to be extended to allow states to catch up on their backlogs. This crisis also highlights challenges with having a lean public workforce to manage and determine eligibility for programs like SNAP in times of crisis when needs are greatest and state budgets are shrinking.

The current pandemic is exposing the inadequacy of our social safety net for the most disadvantaged Americans. A safety net built around employment provides incomplete insurance against labor market shocks. Stay-at-home orders, loss of work, and their implications for declines in income require responsive government action.  It is urgently necessary to expand the available programs, perhaps increasing SNAP benefit levels as was done in the 2009 stimulus and eliminating all work requirements to meet this challenge.


[1] Hoynes H, Miller D, Schaller J. Who suffers during recessions? Journal of Economic Perspectives. 2012;26(3):27-48.
[2] Schanzenbach, DW, Nunn R, Bauer L, Breitwieser A. The closing of the jobs gap: a decade of recession and recovery. The Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution.   https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/closing_jobs_gap_recession_recovery.pdf. Published August 4, 2017. Accessed April 29, 2020.
[3] Hoynes H. The Earned Income Tax Credit. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2019;686(1):180-203.
[4] Hoynes H, Schanzenbach DW. Safety Net Investments in Children. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Fall 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/HoynesSchanzenbach_Text.pdf. Accessed April 29, 2020.
[5] Bitler M, Hoynes H. Heterogeneity in the impact of economic cycles and the Great Recession: effects within and across the income distribution. American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings. 2015;105(5):154-160.
[6] Bitler M, Hoynes H. The state of the safety net in the post-welfare reform era. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Fall 2010. https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/the-state-of-the-social-safety-net-in-the-post-welfare-reform-era-with-comments-and-discussion. Accessed April 29, 2020.
[7] Anderson PM, Levine P. Unemployment insurance fixes to address the Coronavirus fallout. Econofact. March 22, 2020. https://econofact.org/unemployment-insurance-fixes-to-address-the-coronavirus-fallout. Accessed April 29, 2020.
[8] Bitler M, Hoynes H, Kuka E. Do in-work tax credits serve as a safety net? Journal of Human Resources. 2017;36(2):358-389.
[9] Bitler M, Hoynes H. The more things change, the more they stay the same? The safety net and poverty in the Great Recession. Journal of Labor Economics. 2016;34(S1,Part 2):S403-S444.

Bitler M, Hoynes H, Schanzenbach DW. Why the Safety Net Might Not Respond as Effectively to COVID-19 As It Should. Milbank Quarterly Opinion. April 30, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1599/mqop.2020.0401.

About the Authors

Marianne Bitler is a professor of economics at UC Davis and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. She studies the safety net, with a focus on food assistance programs, as well as health economics and economic demography.

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Hilary Hoynes is a professor of economics and public policy and holds the Haas Distinguished Chair in Economic Disparities at the University of California, Berkeley where she also codirects the Berkeley Opportunity Lab. Her research focuses on poverty, inequality, food and nutrition programs, and the impacts of government tax and transfer programs on low income families. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Social Insurance, and a fellow of the Society of Labor Economists. She has served as coeditor of the American Economic Review and the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. She currently serves on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years. Hoynes received her PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 1992 economics and mathematics from Colby College in 1983.

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Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and member of the National Academy of Education and National Academy of Social Insurance. Schanzenbach is a labor economist who studies policies aimed at improving the lives of children in poverty, including education, health, and income support policies. She graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in economics and religion, and received a PhD in economics from Princeton University.

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