Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Public and Private Sources of Assistance for Low-Income Households

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Public and Private Sources of Assistance for Low-Income Households

Article excerpt

This study examined the types and combinations of public and private assistance received by three types of low-income households, including those with children, without children, and elderly without children. Using data from the 1996 and 2001 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), the results indicate that a large percentage of low-income households rely on public assistance, and receipt of private assistance is much less common. Approximately 7% of the sample use both types of assistance. The findings highlight differences in combinations of public and private assistance used by different household types. We also found some significant differences in the factors that determine receipt of public and private assistance. Practice and policy implications are discussed.

Keywords: pubic assistance; private assistance; combination of assistance; poverty; TANF


Approximately 37 million people (12.6% of the United States population) live in poverty, an income level that the federal government estimates cannot provide the basic necessities of living (U. S. Census Bureau, 2006). Poverty rates among various population groups are not constant, but reflect social policy decisions and racial/ethnic, gender, and citizenship status divisions that exist within this country. For example, the elderly experience a relatively low rate of poverty (10.1%), compared to children (17.1%). Only 8.3% of non-Hispanic white children are poor, while 24.9% of Black and 21.8% of Hispanic children live in poverty. Approximately 29% of single female heads of households are poor, more than two times the poverty rate of single male heads of households, and more than five times the poverty rate of married couples. The percentage of non-citizens who live in poverty (20.4%) is almost double that of citizens.

When income from earnings, assets, other transactions in the market place, and social insurance programs does not meet the needs of low-income individuals and families, they rely on assistance from other public and private sources (Danziger, Corcoran, Danziger, & Heflin, 2000; Edin & Lein, 1996; Hollar, 2003; Teitler, Reichman, & Nepomnyaschy, 2004). Public sources include means-tested government benefits such as welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing, and Medicaid. Charitable and non-profit organizations, such as churches, food emergency providers, and other community groups, and social networks are the two main sources of private assistance. Private sources provide a variety of assistance, including cash, clothing, food, and child care.

As the literature review that follows demonstrates, recent social policy changes have weakened the safety net for low-income individuals and families. The federal government's reduced commitment to low-income households highlights the importance of the current study, which identifies the types and combinations of public and private assistance that low-income households rely on to meet their basic needs.

Public Sources of Assistance

Since the 1970s, several major changes reflecting the conservative Reagan era, George Bush Sr.'s "thousand points of light," Bill Clinton's "welfare reform," and most recently George W. Bush's "faith-based and community initiatives" have been made in federal social policy that affect the poor and vulnerable (Brooks, 2004; Marwell, 2004). The changes include cutting federal government funding for public benefits, increasing reliance on volunteer and private activity, shifting federal funds to the private sector (referred to as "privatization"), and shifting administrative decisions related to program participation, such as eligibility and benefit levels, from the federal government to lower levels of government (referred to as "devolution").

According to Hacker (2004), these post-1970s changes have not collapsed this country's welfare state, but they have eroded social protection for vulnerable households in at least three main ways. …

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