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Government means-tested assistance programs, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), provide cash and noncash benefits to many low-income families. In 2009, 19.0 percent of U.S. families, on average, participated in at least one major means-tested program per month. Participation rates were highest for one-parent families headed by women, 46.3 percent, compared with 26.5 percent for one-parent families headed by men and 12.3 percent for married- couple families.

This article uses data from the 2011 Consumer Expenditure Interview Survey to examine the spending patterns of families receiving benefits from one or more government means-tested assistance programs. Families with children under 18 are the focus of this research, because the poverty rate for children under 18 was highest for this group, at 21.9 percent in 2011, compared with 13.7 percent for people age 18 to 64 and 8.7 percent for people age 65 and older.

Findings show that:

  • Average total expenditures of families receiving means-tested assistance were less than half those of families not receiving assistance.
  • For families receiving assistance, food, housing, and transportation accounted for 77.0 percent of the family budget, compared with 65.5 percent of the budget of families not receiving assistance.
  • Among one-parent families receiving assistance, 36.8 percent did not own a car, compared with 3.0 percent of families not receiving assistance and 9.7 percent of two-parent families receiving assistance.


Suggested Citation
Foster, A. C., & Hawk, W. R. (2013). Spending patterns of families receiving means-tested government assistance. Beyond the Numbers (Vol. 2, No. 26). Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics.