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off the charts

State Help for Poor Childless Adults Weakening

Despite persistent high unemployment, a number of states are shrinking or eliminating their General Assistance programs, which provide a safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and don’t qualify for other public assistance.  Our new survey — the first comprehensive, published survey on General Assistance programs in 13 years — finds that seven states cut General Assistance this year, continuing a long-term erosion in these important programs.

Thirty states have General Assistance programs, which generally serve very poor individuals who do not have minor children, are not disabled enough to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and are not elderly.  There is basically no federally supported cash safety-net program for poor childless adults who do not receive SSI.

In most of these states, only individuals who are considered unable to work, generally due to a physical or mental condition, can receive General Assistance.  (Only 12 states provide General Assistance to able-bodied individuals.)

The benefits that these programs provide are extremely modest — less than one-quarter of the poverty line in most states.

General Assistance has become a much weaker safety net over the years.  Many states have eliminated programs altogether, limited eligibility, and cut or frozen benefit levels.  A few lowlights:

  • Between 1989 and 2010, eight states eliminated their programs and 13 others eliminated benefits for employable people, while continuing some aid to people considered unemployable.
  • In 2011, Illinois and Kansas eliminated their programs and five other states — Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia — reduced benefit levels and/or restricted eligibility.
  • In almost every state that still has a General Assistance program, benefits are lower now than in 1998, after adjusting for inflation (see graph).  Many states have frozen benefits since 1998; a few have even cut benefits.

By and large, the federal government has left it up to states to provide basic assistance to childless adults who need it.  States have never provided significant support for this group, and the continued weakening of General Assistance programs means that more poor childless adults — many of them with disabilities — are going to face severe hardship.