State Safety Net Interactive

June 4, 2024

Please cite any use of the State Safety Net Database. Recommended citation:

Schmidt, Lucie, Lara Shore-Sheppard, and Tara Watson, 2024. State Safety Net Database version 2.1 [dataset]. Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

Government-funded food assistance and cash transfers serve as crucial tools for alleviating poverty and inequality, with millions of families across the U.S. relying on social safety net programs to help meet their basic needs. State and federal policies interact to determine eligibility and benefit levels, resulting in 51 distinct safety nets in each of the states and District of Columbia. Our state safety net project characterizes the evolution of the safety net for single-parent families over time—from 2001 through 2022—and across states. Use the State Safety Net Interactive on this page to explore the data for yourself.

Data on safety net expenditures conflate need and program design. If we see high per-capita spending in a state, it might be because its safety net policies are generous, or it might be because there is a high poverty rate in the state. Increases in spending during recessions might arise because states change their program rules or because more families are facing hardship and qualify for existing programs.

To isolate the generosity of safety net program rules, we calculate the benefits theoretically available to a fixed group of single-parent families if they lived in different states and years and fully accessed the programs for which they were eligible. This approach (detailed in the data appendix) allows us to effectively hold constant earnings and demographic factors that influence safety net eligibility so that we can assess how safety net policy itself has evolved. We aggregate average values of food and cash benefits available to this fixed group of single-parent families into an index of generosity reported in 2022 dollars. When the index rises or falls, it is because of changes in state or federal program rules.

We describe the index as representing eligibility and benefits available to a “typical” or average single-parent family, but it is important to note the index does not reflect actual benefits received by any particular family. Family characteristics in each state and year vary, so actual benefit eligibility differs from what is suggested by the index. In addition, there is incomplete take-up: Not all families access programs for which they are eligible, but the index describes safety net benefits available according to program rules.

Analysis of the patterns of the data can be found in the pieces below: