On: June 1, 2021

The U.S. safety net for children consists of a range of programs that supplement incomes of (mostly) working parents and subsidizes ongoing expenses like child care or health care that benefit children’s healthy development. The system, however, is fractured and difficult to navigate, diverting many from benefits they are eligible for.

Below are the main programs for children and families.

Suplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps):

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides money for food. The average household received $248 monthly in 2020. The program served 35 million in 2019, and in April 2020 during the height of the pandemic, 43 million relied on the program.

Eligibility: Families earning less than 130% of the poverty level (or about $27,000 a year, gross, for a three-person family) and with assets less than $2,250 are eligible. Benefits are tied to work; all recipients must be working, looking for work, or be training for a job. 


Lifts more children out of deep poverty (less than 50% of the poverty line) than any other program. SNAP is a lifeline during recessions. 


More than half of families receiving food stamps still reported food insecurity. The application is a nightmare and recipients must be interviewed again each year. 


Medicaid is subsidized health insurance for low-income families and individuals with disabilities. Under the Affordable Care Act, 38 states have expanded eligibility. In 2018, it provided affordable health insurance to 74 million


Covered 32 million children in 2018.


States have a lot of flexibility in coverage and several  are considering tying it to work; only those working would be eligible. In 15 states, single adults are ineligible no matter their income.

Children’s Health Insurance Program:

CHIP covers children in families that earn too much to receive Medicaid but can’t afford insurance through the private market.


Largely because of Medicaid and CHIP, only 5% of children are uninsured today.


CHIP adds to the complexity of the insurance system.

Earned Income Tax Credit:

EITC is a sliding scale refundable tax credit for moderate and low-income working families. The credit is based on family size and income. Those with incomes too low to file taxes are excluded. The average credit is about $3,200. At its high, a single mother with three children could receive $6,500. 


Called the most effective anti-poverty program in the US. Lifts 3 million children out of poverty. 


Those with incomes too low to file taxes are excluded. It is issued annually at tax time, which doesn’t help families with volatile incomes. Its complicated eligibility rules lead to a consistently high error rate .

Child Tax Credit:

Prior to 2020 when the program was revised under pandemic relief programs, the Child Tax Credit was a nearly universal, partially refundable tax credit of up to $2,000 per child. Married families earning more than $480,000 and single-parent families earning $280,000 or more were ineligible. Filers subtract the credit from the total amount of federal income taxes they would otherwise owe. 

In 2020, the Biden administration temporarily made the program fully refundable (all taxpayers even those earning too little would receive it). The funds are distributed monthly instead of annually. And the amounts increased to $250-$300 per child per month, with a maximum of  $3,000 annually. The program’s changes will be revisited in 2022.


It lifts about 4 million children out of poverty. 


Before the temporary changes in 2020, the program misses nearly 27 million children in low- and moderate-income families (and up to 70% of Black children) who did not qualify or received only a partial credit.

Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit:

A universal tax credit for working people to help offset child care costs for a child or dependent with disabilities. The credit is not fully refundable and plateaus at incomes over $45,000. The maximum credit is $3,000 for one dependent or $6,000 for two or more. 


Offsets some costs of high-quality child care. 


The biggest beneficiaries are those earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually. 

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families:

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC): Created during the 1996 welfare reforms, TANF is a cash grant to low-income families. There is a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits. Most states condition it on work. 

The program reaches only 17% of poor families, down from 68% in 1996. A block grant, TANF gives states considerable leeway in determining its parameters.

Benefits vary by state. Mississippi has the lowest monthly benefit at $170 for a family of three and New Hampshire has the highest, at $1086 for a family of three in 2020.


It’s something at least. 


Benefits are low and eroding, states divert eligible women away from it, states use the money for other programs, byzantine red tape.