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Disability Characteristics of Income-Based Government Assistance Recipients in the United States: 2011

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Report Number ACSBR/11-12

Since the Great Depression of the 1930s, federal and state governments have been involved with lessening the consequences of economic hardship through various assistance programs. These programs have delivered relief through cash and/or in-kind assistance. These social assistance programs have relied, at least in part, on an individual’s or family’s income or other economic means to determine who may qualify for benefits, hence the term income-based assistance.1 Understanding the characteristics of people that receive assistance may help governments coordinate and administer these programs better.

Disability status is an important characteristic of people receiving assistance for two reasons. First, some income-based assistance programs require that recipients have both low income and some kind of disability.2 The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, for instance, requires low-income individuals to either have a disability or be aged 65 or older.3 Furthermore, some income-based assistance programs allow recipients of another program that uses disability for eligibility to qualify automatically. For example, some states have criteria that automatically qualify SSI recipients for Medicaid and do not make their own disability determination. Alternatively, states may exempt income derived from government programs that target individuals with disabilities. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) does not include SSI payments in the calculation of income for eligibility.4

The second reason disability is an important characteristic is due to the economic disparities between individuals with and without disabilities that may contribute to the need for government assistance. About one-in-three adults aged 18 to 64 with disabilities were employed in 2011, while three out of every four adults within the same age group and without a disability were employed.5 Among those who did work, the median annual earnings for individuals with disabilities was $19,735, compared with $30,285 for those without a disability.6 With lower employment and earnings, on average, individuals with disabilities would appear to be at greater risk for needing assistance.

This brief presents information from the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) showing the prevalence of disability among civilian noninstitutionalized adults aged 18 and older who received income-based government assistance—cash assistance programs (SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other government assistance) and in-kind assistance programs (SNAP and Medicaid).7,8,9 These data are presented for the nation and states to highlight the geographic variation of disability in this population. The civilian noninstitutionalized population does not include adults living in institutions like correctional facilities and nursing homes.

1 For the programs included in this brief, applicants are evaluated on several criteria, including income, resources (e.g., savings), and employment status. Other terms, such as “means-tested,” may also be used to describe these programs. A definition of “means-tested” can be found in Kim, Jeongsoo, Shelley K. Irving, and Tracy A. Loveless, “Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Participation in Government Programs, 2004 to 2007 and 2009: Who Gets Assistance?,” Current Population Reports, P70-130, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2012. Available at <www.census.gov/library/publications/2012/demo/p70-130.html>.
2 Medicaid uses the term “beneficiary” for program enrollees whereas the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) use the term “recipient.” In order to be consistent with the majority of the programs, this brief will use the term “recipient” for all programs.
3 The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the SSI program. For more information on SSI, go to the SSA’s Web site on SSI at <www.ssa.gov/pgm/ssi.htm>.
4 SNAP gives recipients an electronic benefit transfer card to purchase food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees SNAP and state governments implement the program. Family size, disability status, age, receipt of other government assistance, and other resources determine household eligibility requirements. For more information on SNAP, go to the USDA’s Web site on SNAP at <www.fns.usda.gov/snap/Default.htm>.
5 B18120. Employment Status by Disability Status and Type, <factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/11_1YR/B18120>.
6 B18140. Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months (in 2011 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Disability Status by Sex for the Civilian Noninstitutionalized Population 16 Years and Over With Earnings, <factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/11_1YR/B18140>.
7 The ACS contains questions about Medicaid coverage, SNAP, SSI, TANF, and other public assistance. Receipt of TANF and other cash government assistance are asked as a single “public assistance” question and, as such, the Census Bureau cannot disaggregate TANF receipt from these other cash assistance programs.
8 TANF is a grant program in which state governments provide recipients short-term cash assistance and support in finding a job. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees the administration of TANF. For more information about TANF, visit <www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/programs/tanf>.
9 Medicaid, overseen by HHS, provides health coverage to people with low incomes, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and senior citizens. State governments, which administer Medicaid, can change eligibility requirements. However, their requirements must exceed the requirements set by the federal government. For more information about Medicaid, please go to <www.medicaid.gov/>.


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