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1 in 4 poor Americans don't have social safety net

More than a quarter of people living in poverty in the U.S. receive no help from food stamps and other nutrition programs, subsidized housing, cash benefits, or child care assistance, according to a new Urban Institute analysis examining the reach of the social safety net.

That means 13 million people at the poverty line, with household incomes below $25,100 a year for a family of four, are disconnected from federal programs for the neediest Americans.

Among the very poorest Americans - families of four making less than $13,000 a year - nearly a third receive no benefit from the federal safety net.

"There are a lot of people in this country who are not attached to our major systems of support, and they are in desperate need," said Gregory Acs, vice president for income and benefits policy at the Urban Institute.

Black Americans are most likely to receive assistance, with 85 percent of those in poverty receiving at least one form of aid. Hispanics and Asians are least likely, with 66 and 67 percent, respectively. Among whites, 70 percent receive at least one benefit.

Researchers who study poverty and government assistance programs suggested multiple reasons some groups are more likely to receive benefits than others. Studies have shown that lower-income white families have more resources to fall back on than lower-income nonwhite families.

Among black and white families with equally low incomes, the assets and net wealth of poor African-Americans tend to be well below those of whites - leaving them with fewer alternatives to government assistance programs, said Arloc Sherman, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Families with even a small amount of savings - between $250 to $750 - are less likely to receive public benefits when faced with job loss, unexpected medical bills and other income disruptions, said Signe-Mary McKernan, an economist at the Urban Institute whose research focuses on financial security.

Whites are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to own homes, have retirement savings, and inherit money, even at lower-income levels, she said.

"That's money that can be used to tide families over in an emergency," McKernan said.

In addition to family wealth, immigration status and the social stigma surrounding federal benefits may also play a role in the gap, researchers said. Undocumented immigrants - of whom a fifth live in poverty, according to the Pew Hispanic Center - are not eligible to receive benefits.

In Mississippi,where poor whites are twice as likely as their black counterparts to not receive federal assistance, advocates say the racial stigma surrounding government help hurts lawmakers' will to expand the safety net. Instead, the deeply red state has enacted policies that make it more difficult to access food stamps, welfare and child care assistance, said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative.

"There is a real racial undercurrent in our state in attitudes toward public assistance," said Burnett, who is white. "Public assistance is maligned by white conservative policymakers the same way it is nationally - that it serves as a disincentive, that people are too lazy, that people don't deserve it - this whole set of descriptors that functions as code language in Mississippi to basically mean black people."

Valorie Ladner, a white mother in Waveland Mississippi, said she's had to brush aside the judgment of extended family members and seek government help to feed her four children. She receives about $750 a month in food stamps, a fact she used to try to hide from strangers at the grocery store by quickly swiping her EBT card.

"I'm not going to let my kids go without because of my pride," said Ladner, 36, whose husband, who is in construction and plumbing, is out of work. Ladner recently got a temporary $1,200-a-month job as a janitor at her daughter's school.

Ladner said she was also set to apply for subsidized housing but her father, a retired fireman, allowed her family to live in his house rent-free.

"If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have a roof over my head," Ladner said. "I'm lucky to have help from my family. Not everybody has that safety net."

In Biloxi, Mississippi, Tanasia Butler made $10 to $14 an hour answering customer service calls for Grubhub from home while completing her bachelor's degree in communication through a University of Maryland online program.

Her family lived in public housing for three years and relied on food stamps.

Butler, who is black, said she couldn't ask her mother or grandmother in Chicago for help because they, too, depended on federal assistance.

"The bottom line is that family support was just not available," said Butler, 30. "It's a humbling experience to ask for help - imagine having to go to a building and talk to a stranger about how you aren't able to take care of yourself and your family. Without these programs in place, there is no safety net for people like me."

After she earned her degree last year, she got a new job making $30 an hour as a sales representative for a virtual human resources firm. One month into her new job, Butler's earnings grew, and she was cut from receiving any federal benefits.

"My goal was always to get off them," she said. "The stigma is that black people are lazy, but those benefits helped me survive. Struggle doesn't have a color."

Butler, who was promoted to senior recruiter, now makes $100,000 a year. She bought a three-bedroom housein Gulfport, where she lives with her husband, a truck driver for a moving company, and their five children, including two stepchildren and a newborn.

"A little help goes a long way with the right person," she said.

Public polling reveals that black and white Americans hold different views about public assistance. Whites were far more likely than African-Americans to say federal government programs aimed at improving people's standard of living generally make things worse - 37 percent compared to 8 percent, according to a 2017 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation national poll.

A 57 percent majority of whites said it's more common for irresponsible people to get help they don't deserve; 38 percent of whites said they feel it's more common for needy people to go without benefits, the Post-Kaiser poll found. Among African-Americans, 45 percent said it's more common for irresponsible people to get undeserved help, while 51 percent said it's more common that people in need don't receive government assistance.

Overall, the federal safety net reaches nearly 1 in 5 Americans each month, including nearly a third of all children, according to the Urban Institute analysis. Among the 59 million Americans receiving some type of assistance, 43 percent are white, 26 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent are black, and 8 percent are Asian.

The Urban Institute study, which adjusts for the underreporting of benefits, did not examine how much individuals receive in benefits or whether the assistance meets their needs.

The reach of the safety net differs across states, the analysis found. On average, the estimated percentage of people with household incomes below $50,200 for a family of four who receive help from at least one of the programs ranges from 36 percent in Utah to 67 percent in the District of Columbia.

Some states make it easier to enroll in safety net programs through active outreach or additional state funding. Other states have enacted policies such as work requirements that the Trump administration is seeking to expand.

The researchers included in their analysis a basket of six monthly benefits available only to individuals or families who meet certain income guidelines: cash assistance for seniors and individuals with disabilities, cash welfare, subsidized housing, child care subsidies, food stamps, and supplemental nutrition for pregnant women and mothers with young children.

They did not include Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) because federally subsidized health care was undergoing significant changes following the adoption of the Affordable Care Act. Most people who qualify for Medicaid/CHIP are also likely to receive another form of assistance, researchers said.

Without these programs in place, there is no safety net for people like me," said Tanasia Butler, who used to live in public housing and receive food stamps. "Struggle doesn't have a color." MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson