If you were to ask Beth Mattingly to describe national safety net programs like food stamps she would give two words: necessary but insufficient .
That's because the nation's poverty rate hasn't budged.
Data from the Supplemental Poverty Measure, released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed the nation's poverty rate at 16 percent, unchanged from the 2011 report. This rate is slightly higher than the 2012 official poverty measure of 15 percent.
So where does this leave government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as food stamps) and other programs offering relief to impoverished Americans?
According to Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families for the Carsey Institute, it's still being gobbled up by needy families.
The Supplemental Poverty Measure, the third published since it was first released in 2011, suggests that even years after the recession has officially ended, many are still in an economic rut, she said.
"We have these high numbers in the wake of the recession, so in terms of the Americans who are struggling the most, we are not seeing a reduction in their ranks," said Mattingly.
Safety nets still effective
While the number of people living in poverty isn't changing, Mattingly said the report is still telling.
"The report shows how many people are being listed above poverty because of (safety net) programs, but additionally there are many people who are still in poverty," she said. "They are not in as deep of poverty as they would be absent these programs."
But an overhaul of safety net policies looks uncertain, Mattingly said.
Earlier this month the food stamps program saw cuts to totaling $5 billion.
Nearly 48 million Americans were affected by these cuts, equivalent to eliminating 21 meals a month for a family of four, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Mattingly said both the House and Senate have passed bills to cut food stamps further. Regardless of what happens though, the future for programs like food stamps remain undetermined, she said.
"We are in an economic climate of cutting programs and not expanding them," Mattingly said. "It will depend ultimately on how they are cut. It could mean fewer benefits or fewer eligible. People who get benefits may see fewer dollars. It can mean a harder road for some Americans."
Progress in measurements
Measuring poverty for this study is a new approach to identifying America's poor.
For most of the nation's history, the government had no threshold to measure poverty, but beginning in 1963, census workers started tabulating how much the average family spent on food.
Results showed that the average family spent a third of their income on meals. The results were used each year as a marker to determine the number of people living in poverty, and were adjusted annually to meet inflation.
Because of concern about the accuracy of this measure, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics developed a new way to calculate poverty that would include the use of safety net programs like food stamps, tax credits and subsidized housing, as well as necessary expenses the average American has. This is the third year the U.S. Census has released the Supplemental Poverty Measure.
"What it can do, what it has done in the past is to give us a sense of how well some of our safety net programs are working," said Jessica Carson, vulnerable families research scientist for the Carsey Institute. "By having the ability to look at how much a program like food stamps, or the earned income tax credit, it can give us a look into what really seems to be lifting children and elderly families out of poverty and what seems to be contributing less to that."
The Supplemental Poverty Measure shows that in 2012, 49.7 million Americans were living in poverty compared to 47 million shown on the official poverty measure.
Fewer children are living in poverty (18 percent) according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, compared with the official poverty measure (22.3 percent). These rates differ because the Supplemental Poverty Measure accounts for safety net programs such as free and reduced lunches and food stamps.
But more elderly Americans (14.8 percent) are living in poverty according to the new data compared to the official measure (9.1 percent). This increase is because the Supplemental measure also calculates child care, medical bills and other necessary household expenses.
Overall poverty rates may not be rising, but Carson said statistics like these are indicative of how many less traditional families are seeking the aid of safety net programs.
"Families that don’t have children, or householders who are not disabled are using these programs," Carson said. "I think that speaks broadly to the slowly recovering economic conditions the nation has faced post-recession."