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Contact:  Robert Bernstein
Public Information Office
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Census Bureau Reports Nearly Half of U.S. Residents Live in Households Receiving Government Benefits

Participation in Means-Tested Programs on Upswing in 2008

     In the third quarter of 2008, approximately 45 percent of U.S. residents lived in households in which at least one individual received government benefits, according to data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. These benefits came from programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

     According to the report, about 28.4 million households, or 24 percent of the U.S. total, received means-tested benefits — either cash or noncash — in an average month during the quarter. Medicaid (21.1 million), free or reduced-price school meals (11.5 million) and food stamps (9.3 million) were the most widely received such benefits. (Means-tested programs are those that provide cash or services to people who meet a test of need based on income and assets.) However, it was two non-means-tested programs, Social Security and Medicare, that affected the largest number of households, with 33.6 million receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits and 30.8 million receiving benefits from Medicare.

    In keeping with the economic downturn, participation rates for each means-tested program were on the upswing between May and November 2008. The percentage of households receiving any type of means-tested benefit climbed from 23.2 percent to 24.7 percent between May and November of that year, with the percentage receiving food stamps increasing from 7.6 percent to 8.8 percent and the share of those receiving Medicaid rising from 17.5 percent to 18.5 percent.

     The information comes from Economic Characteristics of Households in the United States: Third Quarter 2008 [PDF], which examines the roles of government-sponsored benefit programs and the labor market during the recession. Specifically, it presents data on average monthly income, participation in government-sponsored social welfare or social insurance programs and labor force activity during the period.

     The data are from the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation, a longitudinal survey that follows the same group of individuals over time, interviewing them once every four months. The interviews were conducted from September 2008 through December 2008; monthly estimates for each of the four months prior to the interview are available.

     The statistics in this report are not to be confused with and do not supersede the official income and poverty estimates, released last September, collected from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) between February and April 2009. Those numbers pertain to the entire 2008 calendar year.

     Other highlights:

  • Among the 67 percent of the working-age population engaging in some labor force activity, median monthly household cash income was $5,500; for those without labor force activity, such as retired people, this income was $2,979.
  • On average, about 143 million of the 157 million people in the labor force had a job the entire month. Such individuals had an average median monthly household cash income of $5,751. For those with a job only part of the month, it was $4,001, while it was $2,510 for those without a job the entire month who were looking for work or who were laid off.
  • Noncash means-tested benefits went to 28.2 million households in an average month. The majority of these households (54 percent) participated in two or more programs. A prevalent form of multiple recipiency (at least 4.6 million households) was the combination of food stamps and Medicaid coverage.
  • Receiving means-tested government benefits was significantly more common among households with unemployed members or with no labor force participants than among those with job-holders only.
  • On average, about 1.8 million people who had jobs the entire month spent a week or more laid off from them. Their median monthly household cash income was $3,917, considerably less than the $5,751 for people with jobs the entire month.
  • When one or more members in the household had a job and no member was unemployed, the average monthly household income was $6,490. When at least one household member was unemployed, mean household income dropped to $4,041. For households without members in the labor force, average income was $2,255.
These data were collected from September through December 2008 in the Survey of Income and Program Participation. As in all surveys, these data are subject to sampling and nonsampling error. For further information on the source of the data and accuracy of the estimates, including standard errors and confidence intervals, visit <>. [PDF]
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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Public Information Office | | Last Revised: September 09, 2014