Public Assistance and Working Poor Families: Has the Nation Become More Like the Rural South?
Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University
Investigator: Mills, Bradford, Brian Whitacre, and Christiana Hilmer
Institution: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
314 Hutcheson Hall
Blacksburg, VA 24061
The last two decades have brought profound changes in U.S. social welfare
policies. The changes were driven in part by the idea that able-bodied
adults should work to support their families, and that their families should
be able to escape poverty by earnings from work perhaps supplemented by
Federal programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. In 2002, 36
percent of persons below the national poverty line were in families where
adult members worked on average more than 1,000 hours per year. This
represents a substantial increase from 28 percent of persons in poor families
with the same level of attachment to the workforce in 1982. The rural
South, historically the poorest region of the country, shows different trends
from the nation as a whole, with the share of the poor in working families
essentially constant at about 36 percent in 1982 and 2002.
This study provided a comprehensive portrait of working poor families and
their use of food stamps and cash assistance nationally, in rural America,
and in the rural South. The authors used Current Population Survey data at
4-year intervals from 1982 to 2002. The study found that the share of
working poor families headed by a person who was Hispanic, a single
parent, or who had some education beyond high school, was higher in 2002
than in 1982. In 2002, the characteristics of working poor families in the
rural South appear to be much more similar to those seen in the Nation as a
whole than in 1982. This similarity suggests that a comparable set of policies
to address family characteristics that perpetuate poverty in the Nation
may be employed in the rural South.
Families headed by a person with no more than a high school degree were
more likely to be poor in 2002 than in 1982, which offset decreases in the
poverty rate that resulted from the average increase in education levels.
Thus families, particularly in the rural South, increasingly need a member
with some college education to substantially increase income and reduce the
risk of being a working poor family. However, the rural South appears to
have experienced less severe erosion in economic well-being among families
headed by a person with a low level of education. This regional difference
is largely because the levels of economic well-being associated with a
high school degree or less were initially lower in the rural South than in the
Nation as a whole in 1982.
The authors also identified factors associated with food stamp and cash
assistance use among the working poor. While overall rates of food stamp
use by working poor families were similar in 1982 and 2002, there has been
a significant structural change in the relationship between food stamp use
and family characteristics. The differential propensity for African
Americans to use food stamps has diminished. Hispanic-headed families
are more unlikely to use the FSP relative to non-Hispanic families.
The study also found a decrease in the probability that working poor families
used cash assistance and food stamps. The authors suggest that part of
the decline in food stamp use may be linked to the increased requirements
for households to periodically certify their eligibility for food stamps.
Efforts have been undertaken in some States to streamline program reauthorization
procedures and establish office hours that accommodate working