The U.S. safety net has changed substantially in the past two
decades. The role of direct cash assistance has diminished, while
the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has expanded. Traditional
forms of non-cash assistance such as Food Stamps, WIC, and Head
Start comprise a larger share of the safety net than ever before.
Our Research Affiliates are finding that many non-cash programs
make a substantive difference in families’ well-being, even if
these programs do not increase families’ cash income. Affiliates
also actively pursue research agendas that embrace a broader set
of programs that assist low income groups such as education and
health care programs. Many of these programs have not
traditionally been considered part of the safety net but play a
crucial role affecting poor families’ well-being.
Although a growing number of studies suggest that providing poor
families with income supplements of as little as $1,000 per
year will improve children’s well-being, many poor children
miss important sources of income support provided through the tax
system because their parents either do not work or do not
file taxes. Accessing assistance through means-tested programs is
In the classroom at Kit Carson Middle School in Sacramento,
Michal Kurlaender sits at one of four small desks pushed to face
each other. The walls are papered in yellow, red and bright blue,
and wavy corrugated borders frame a flutter of papers under the
Kurlaender is interviewing a teacher as part of her evaluation of
the school’s teacher development program to improve students’
college readiness skills. The sudden, grating buzz of the class
bell startles everyone. Kurlaender smiles. “It’s nicer when it’s
the music instead,” she says.
Center Executive Committee Member & Faculty Affiliate Michal
Kurlaender and colleague Eric Grodsky have garnered a lot of
attention, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court Ruling
on affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas.
This paper is forthcoming in Sociology of
The 1996 welfare reform led to sweeping changes to the central
cash safety net program for families with children. Along with
other changes, the reform imposed lifetime time limits for
receipt of cash welfare, effectively ending its entitlement
nature for these families. Despite dire predictions, previous
research has shown that program caseloads declined and employment
increased, with no detectible increase in poverty or worsening of
child well-being. Research Affiliate Hilary Hoynes reevaluates
these results in light of the severe 2007–09 recession.
This project evaluates the health impacts of a signature
initiative of the War on Poverty: the introduction of the
modern Food Stamp Program (FSP). The literature is far
from settled as to what casual impact (if any) the FSP has on
nutrition and health. Research Affiliate Hilary Hoynes explores
the impact of the FSP, one of the largest antipoverty programs in
the United States (comparable in cost to the earned income tax
credit and substantially larger than Temporary Assistance to
Needy Families program) in an attempt to understand FSP
effects. While valuable in its own right, this project also
reveals much about the relationship between income and health.
A central question in public finance, one that has generated
decades of research, is how tax and transfer programs affect
labor supply. Treating food stamp benefits as an income transfer,
Research Affiliate Hilary Hoynes uses a quasi-experimental
approach to estimate the impact of the program on labor supply.
A large body of literature evaluates the extent to which the
Supplemental Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) has
accomplished the goal of improving nutritional well-being and
health of low income families, but most studies have been based
on research designs that compare program participants to
non-participants. If selection into these programs is non-random,
then such comparisons will lead to biased estimates of the
program’s true effects. In this study, investigators use the
rollout of the WIC program across counties to estimate the impact
of the program on infant health.
School voucher programs have become increasingly widespread in
recent years. These programs aim to expand choice for families:
Proponents of voucher programs often argue that they will help
the most disadvantaged children, allowing them the opportunity to
exit unsafe and underperforming schools.
Head Start is a federally funded early childhood educational
intervention program designed to reduce disparities in preschool
outcomes. While a recent impact study may indicate that Head
Start is ineffective, our Research Affiliates are investigating
further to assess whether the program’s long-term effects improve
the life chances of participants.