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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Federal Benefits and Services for People with Low Income: Programs, Policy, and Spending,FY2008-FY2009

Karen Spar
Specialist in Domestic Social Policy and Division Research Coordinator

The federal government spent almost $708 billion in FY2009 on programs for low-income people, and nearly $578 billion the previous year. The increased spending between the two years was largely due to the recession, with almost two-thirds coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, P.L. 111-5), the economic stimulus enacted in February 2009.

Low-income programs discussed in this report are distinct from social insurance programs, such as Social Security or Medicare, which aim to protect American workers universally against lost wages or benefits when they retire, become disabled, or lose a job. In contrast, programs addressed here focus explicitly on low-income populations. They provide assistance in obtaining basic needs, such as health care, food, or housing, and seek to address the causes of low income through education, training, or other services. While these programs are very diverse, the analysis in this report yields certain general findings: 
  • Health care dominates all other categories of benefits and services, accounting for nearly half of federal spending for low-income people. Cash aid is second but trails far behind, comprising 18% of spending in FY2009. Other categories, in decreasing size, are food assistance, housing and development, education, social services, energy assistance, and employment and training. 
  • Four programs account for 60% of federal spending for low-income people and 10 programs make up more than three-fourths. Medicaid alone accounted for nearly 40% of FY2009 lowincome spending; next were the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), Supplemental Security Income, and the refundable portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. 
  • Elderly and disabled individuals, and families with children are key target populations for much of the spending for low-income people. Federal policy toward families with children generally encourages work and includes incentives to “make work pay.” Other populations served by selected programs include veterans, students, homeless people, Indians, and refugees. 
  • Within broad target populations, programs use different concepts to determine who is eligible. Most spending is on behalf of people determined individually eligible by virtue of their low income or eligibility for another income-tested program. “Low income” is defined in a multitude of ways, using different percentages of the federal poverty guidelines, specific dollar amounts, percentages of local area median income (primarily for housing programs), or other measures. 
  • Many programs distribute funding to states or other entities to provide benefits and services to low-income people, using population-based allocation factors, cost-sharing formulas, or other mechanisms to target resources toward areas or entities with the greatest need. Some of these programs (especially in elementary and secondary education) have no further requirements for individuals to be determined income-eligible. 
  • Programs for low-income people are most likely to use formula grants to distribute funds to states or another unit of government. Under many of these programs, notably including Medicaid, states must spend a specified amount of their own funds to receive federal dollars. State and local governments administer most of these federal programs; however, many of the largest programs provide federal benefits directly to individuals or via a nongovernmental intermediary.

Date of Report: January 31, 2011
Number of Pages: 179
Order Number: R41625
Price: $29.95

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