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Poverty Increase Would Have Been Nearly Three Times Greater Without Jobless Benefits and Food Stamps Than With Them

Last week, we highlighted our analysis of the Census Bureau’s new poverty data, in which we found that unemployment benefits kept many Americans out of poverty and economic hardship in 2009. Food stamps helped, too. In fact, the increase in the number of Americans with income below the poverty line is nearly three times as great if you don’t count unemployment benefits and food stamps as if you do.

  • If you count only people’s cash income minus their unemployment benefits, the number of people with incomes below the poverty line rose by 6.2 million, from 40.7 million in 2008 to 46.9 million in 2009.
  • If you count people’s cash income including their unemployment benefits, as the Census Bureau’s official poverty measure does, the number of poor Americans rose by 3.7 million, from 39.8 million in 2008 to 43.6 million in 2009.
  • If you count people’s cash income including unemployment benefits and add food stamp benefits, the number of poor Americans rose by 2.3 million, from 37.6 million in 2008 to 40 million in 2009.

Why did these programs have such a large impact? For one thing, the 2009 Recovery temporarily expanded food stamp benefits and unemployment insurance. For another, the sharp increase in unemployment during the recession made many more people eligible for these programs.

I’m not suggesting that merely adding food stamps to the current poverty definition would produce the ideal measure of poverty. For instance, child care costs and other work expenses also affect families’ ability to meet basic needs. But these figures do give you a sense of how hard government was pushing back against a rising wave of economic hardship in 2009. As it happens, it was pushing back pretty hard.