_CULTURE SOCIETY Public Assistance

_The Poverty Cliff

Just when people manage to earn more money, they may find themselves worse off than before, according to new research.

_Mariana Chilton

Chilton is the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health.

Getting a better job or more hours at work should be good news for low-income individuals trying to free themselves and their families from poverty. But instead, some families suffer more just when they should begin to thrive.

“For too many families, a modest increase in income, especially when those increases are often temporary, does not make up for benefits that are lost as a result of the increase,” says Drexel’s Mariana Chilton.

“A loss of benefits can have drastic impacts on a family…forcing them to return to benefit programs they worked so hard to leave.”

–Mariana Chilton, associate professor in the School of Public Health

That cliff effect — losing benefits in the transition out of poverty — was the focus of a policy report released by Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities late last year, based on Children’s HealthWatch data collected in Philadelphia from 2005 through 2013.

The analysis found that families who experienced a reduction of food stamp benefits (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) due to an increase in income were more likely to be food insecure or marginally food secure than were families who received a consistent level of SNAP benefits.

The report indicates other sacrifices in the family’s health and health care, beyond access to food. For example, families whose SNAP benefits were reduced were more likely to include a family member who was forced to forgo health care due to cost. In households who lost SNAP benefits completely due to increased income, young children were twice as likely to have foregone needed health care due to cost and more likely to live in a household that made trade-offs between paying for other basic living expenses to pay for health care.

The authors say solutions are simple: implementing paid sick leave and increasing access to affordable childcare, providing livable wages and developing strategies to help families stay off of benefit programs in the first place.