Nearly 40 Percent of Virginia Seniors Would Be in Poverty Today Without Social Safety Net Programs, Among Findings of U.Va. Study

Findings of a study released today by researchers at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, identify patterns of poverty in Virginia by region and demographic group, and trace the mission and impact of government programs on economic security.

"Since 46 percent of Virginia households receive benefits from at least one social safety net program, the current national debate about these programs has great relevance for the economic well-being of the commonwealth," said Dustin Cable, policy associate at the center and lead author of the study.

Several findings point to the importance of these programs, he said. For example, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income significantly reduce poverty among the elderly. "If these programs disappeared, nearly 40 percent of today's Virginia seniors would be in poverty, compared to the current rate of 10 percent."

The Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits have strong poverty-reduction effects for families with children, he noted, and the poverty rate for disabled adults drops by more than 50 percent as a result of social safety net programs targeted to the needs of the disabled population.

The Cooper Center study led to two papers, produced by Cable and demographer Rebecca Tippett and found on the Cooper Center website, providing a Virginia-specific context for the current national debate about social safety net programs. In addition to the reports, the research created interactive resources, including a timeline of the history of social safety net programs and maps of Virginia depicting poverty rates and concentrations of recipients of selected programs.

The first paper, "Who Are Virginia's Poor?," presents a comprehensive analysis of poverty statistics by demographic characteristics, including age, race and household composition, as well as by region and locality.

"It's important to understand who is poor in order to better evaluate the social safety net's role in alleviating poverty," Tippett said. "The child poverty rate, for example, is the highest among all age groups, and programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps; FAMIS, or Family Access to Medical Insurance Security; and free- or reduced-price school lunches help economically disadvantaged children obtain a minimum level of food and health care."

The second paper, "The Role of the Social Safety Net in Virginia," presents a review of the history, scope and effects of social safety net programs, from Social Security to the Affordable Care Act. The research explores: What social safety net programs are provided to Virginians? Who receives benefits, and what benefits do they receive? The research also explores how much higher the poverty level could be without social safety net programs.

"Without income from these programs, more individuals and families in Virginia would be poor today – including the temporarily unemployed, the disabled, the elderly and children," Cable said. "We hope these two papers illuminate the scope of poverty and the impact of social safety net programs in Virginia, and serve to inform the public and policymakers facing difficult budgetary and program-reform decisions."

These reports are the latest releases for Numbers Count, a Cooper Center series on demographic issues of current interest.

The reports and interactive resources can be found here.