Today’s news about poverty is grim. But without the safety net, it would have been a lot worse, data from the Census Bureau also show.
Social Security is responsible for the one bright spot in today’s poverty numbers—the decline in poverty among people 65 and older. Without income from Social Security, 20.5 million additional Americans would be poor. It’s no surprise that most of those kept out of poverty by Social Security—14 million of them—are ages 65 and older. But 5.4 million of those kept out of poverty are adults ages 18 to 64, and 1.1 million are children under 18—people who benefit from the life and disability insurance protections Social Security provides in addition to retirement benefits.
With the rise in unemployment in 2009, poverty increased for children and adults under 65. But thanks to unemployment insurance benefits, which were enhanced and extended under the Recovery Act, 3.3 million Americans were lifted out of poverty, including 1 million children under 18.
The value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is not counted as income under the current poverty measure, which only counts cash income before taxes. However, if SNAP benefits had been counted, 3.6 million fewer Americans, including 1.7 million children, 1.7 million adults ages 18 to 64, and 200,000 adults 65 and older would fall below the poverty line.
But these important elements of the safety net are threatened, along with other key supports for vulnerable families:
- The enhanced unemployment insurance benefits that helped keep millions out of poverty last year expire at the end of November, although unemployment is sure to still be above 9 percent.
- Congress has already cut nearly $12 billion from enhanced SNAP benefits, and additional cuts were approved by the Senate, ironically, to help pay for its child nutrition bill.
- The President’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is considering cuts to Social Security benefits.
- Funding for child care assistance and child support enforcement will be cut next year, unless Congress acts.
Yet some members of Congress want to spend billions to cut taxes for millionaires, and votes could occur as early as next week.
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