, Volume 55, Issue 1, pp 189–221 | Cite as

The Changing Safety Net for Low-Income Parents and Their Children: Structural or Cyclical Changes in Income Support Policy?

  • Bradley Hardy
  • Timothy Smeeding
  • James P. Ziliak


Refundable tax credits and food assistance are the largest transfer programs available to able-bodied working poor and near-poor families in the United States, and simultaneous participation in these programs has more than doubled since the early 2000s. To understand this growth, we construct a series of two-year panels from the 1981–2013 waves of the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement to estimate the effect of state labor-market conditions, federal and state transfer program policy choices, and household demographics governing joint participation in food and refundable tax credit programs. Overall, changing policy drives much of the increase in the simultaneous, biennial use of food assistance and refundable tax credits. This stands in stark contrast from the factors accounting for the growth in food assistance alone, where cyclical and structural labor market factors account for at least one-half of the growth, and demographics play a more prominent role. Moreover, since 2000, the business cycle factors as the leading determinant in biennial participation decisions in food programs and refundable tax credits, suggesting a recent strengthening in the relationship between economic conditions and transfer programs.


Supplemental nutrition assistance program Earned income tax credit Additional child tax credit Business cycle Welfare reform 



We thank the Smith Richardson Foundation for providing financial support. We also thank Susan Mayer, Dan Puskin, Darrick Hamilton, and Robin Lumsdaine, as well as participants at the 2013 APPAM conference, 2014 ASSA meetings, the 2014 Building Human Capital Conference, and seminar participants at Washington and Lee University for helpful feedback on earlier versions. We thank Robert Hartley for timely and valuable research assistance. Finally, this project was completed while Hardy served as the 2017–2018 Okun-Model fellow in Economic Studies at The Brookings Institution, and we acknowledge their support.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bradley Hardy
    • 1
  • Timothy Smeeding
    • 2
  • James P. Ziliak
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Public Administration and PolicyAmerican UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.La Follette School of Public AffairsUniversity of Wisconsin–MadisonMadisonUSA
  3. 3.Center for Poverty Research, Department of EconomicsUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

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