Material hardship is the inability of households to consistently meet their basic needs such as food and shelter, and to effectively cope with financial shocks (Chase, Gjertson, & Collins, 2011). More concerning, material hardship is associated with adverse social, educational, and health outcomes, particularly among children (Gershoff, Aber, Raver, & Lennon, 2007; McLoyd, 1998). From an ecological systems perspective, material hardship is affected by access to labor markets and social welfare policies, which have changed considerably following welfare reform in the mid 1990s. Labor force participation among single mothers has increased sharply (Juhn & Potter, 2006) concomitant with expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the contraction of income maintenance programs like temporary assistance for needy families (TANF).
Despite EITC expansion, low wage workers continue to struggle financially, spurring efforts to raise local and state minimum wages. In addition, some individuals face significant barriers to work (Blank, 2007), as evidenced by a rise in the number of families with children with very low incomes since welfare reform (Shaefer & Edin, 2013).
This symposium examines social welfare policies aimed at reducing material hardship and promoting economic mobility among low and moderate income (LMI) individuals and families. The first paper examines the Obama Administration’s proposal to modify EITC criteria for workers without dependents based on a study of nearly 600,000 LMI households. Most households experienced a financial shock in the six months after they filed their taxes. Changes in EITC criteria would more than double the number of households without dependents who could claim the EITC and bring a modest number above the federal poverty line.
The second paper examines how Seattle’s $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance may affect eligibility for means-tested public assistance programs. Simulation findings showed an average effective marginal tax rate of 72.5% associated with minimum wage increases, with families that use the most programs actually being worse off due to decreased public benefits. Findings suggest the need for policy makers and administrators to ensure families do not lose critical work supports as their wages rise.
The third paper analyzes data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) concerning changes in incidence of extreme poverty (i.e., $2 a day) from 1996 to 2011 among families with children, and describes these families’ material hardships using ethnographic inquiry. The greatest sub-group growth in incidence occurred in families who experienced extreme poverty for seven or more months a year. These families face greater material hardships than other low-income families, likely as a result of the erosion of income support for non-workers.
This panel addresses important questions about the impact of policy changes on material hardship among different types of LMI households, including how such changes affect work supports and fail to assist extremely poor families. Findings suggest that social workers should lead a broad social policy initiative to foster the economic well-being of poor families Methods in these studies offer a framework for the ongoing evaluation of the effects of these policies.