Americans in poverty are a shifting population

Public dependence isn’t a permanent condition, although we often talk about people in need of government aid as if they constitute some kind of fixed class — as if welfare recipients have always needed welfare, as if the families on food stamps today are exactly the same ones on food stamps a decade ago.

The reality is that Americans who need government aid, like Americans living below the poverty line, represent a shifting population. A parent who loses his job — and the health care that came with it — may need to rely on Medicaid temporarily. A graduate who can’t find more than part-time work right out of school may need food stamps until she does.

That’s not to say that everyone meets this model. But it’s hard to sweep people enrolled in these programs into some category wholly apart from the rest of us — because many who needed help in the past don’t necessarily today or won’t tomorrow. Who’s poor changes with time and circumstance. And their ranks swell and shrink with the health of the economy.

This point is clear in a report the Census Bureau just released on who participates in the country’s major means-tested programs: Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance, welfare and Supplemental Security Income (which is meant to help the elderly and disabled). Census’ Survey of Income and Program Participation tracks people over time, and so it’s possible to see what happens to those enrolled one year in a program a year or two later.

This new data follows participation from 2009 to 2012. And it reveals, across those four years, that the vast majority of people receiving welfare — about 63 percent — participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for cumulatively less than 12 months. Less than 10 percent were enrolled in the program for most of that time. Similarly, about a third of people using food stamps and Medicaid were what the Census would consider “short-term program participants.” And the same is true of about a quarter of people getting housing assistance.

This means that sizable shares of people moved out of these programs within a year of needing them (or that they needed them for stretches that amounted to less than a year over a four-year period). And this reflects a particularly rough stretch in the economy at the end of the recession.

At any given month in 2012, just 1 percent of the U.S. population was relying, for example, on welfare, the program that’s drawn particular scrutiny of late.

This picture doesn’t negate the reality that many people do get mired in poverty for years at a time, even whole generations. And some groups — blacks, female-headed households, adults with less than a high school diploma — are particularly likely to need these programs for longer stretches of time. But it’s also true that many of the people who’ve needed a safety net have used it only temporarily — and that some taxpayers who support it now will likely need it in the future.

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