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Soc Work. 2002 Jul;47(3):237-48.

Welfare use as a life course event: toward a new understanding of the U.S. safety net.

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  • 1George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, 1 Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1196, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA.


What proportion of the American population uses a social safety net program during the course of adulthood? To address this question, we constructed a series of life tables using 30 years of longitudinal data. Our results indicate that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 20 and 65 will at some point reside in a household that receives benefits from a means-tested welfare program (food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or other cash welfare). Such assistance is often in the form of in-kind programs, such as food stamps or Medicaid. The findings also indicate that the use of welfare tends to take place over fairly short intervals of time. For example, although 65 percent of Americans will use welfare by age 65, only 15.9 percent will do so for five or more consecutive years. However, once the use of welfare occurs, it is quite likely to occur again at some point during adulthood. Our results suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the use of the United States social safety net is a mainstream experience.

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