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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia’s National Center for Children in Poverty Says State Safety Nets Offer Uneven Support to Low-income Working Families 

When it comes to providing economic assistance to families living near the poverty line, state practice and policy implementation vary in ways unexplained by differences in economic performance or the cost of living, according to data revealed in a newly updated and enhanced policy analysis tool from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The 50-State Policy Tracker is a unique online tool for comparing safety net policies that are critical to the economic security of working families. The tool reveals striking variation among states, showing that state policy choices have a major impact on whether low-income working parents succeed in making ends meet.

[Photo: Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons]

“The good news is that more states are taking measures to help poor families, such as eliminating policies that discourage family savings and making more parents eligible for public health insurance,” said Dr. Curtis Skinner, director of Family Economic Security at NCCP. “More state governments and social services agencies are looking at how their neighbors are using innovative policy approaches to help working families. Still, too many states have practices and guidelines that actually work against family efforts to achieve self-sufficiency.”

Skinner noted that state-by-state differences across policy dimensions mean families living near the federal poverty line face very different eligibility rules and benefit levels for safety net programs depending on where they reside:

“Policymakers and advocates find the policy tracker invaluable for spotting innovative state approaches and flagging places where the safety net is failing to support the neediest families,” said Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons, NCCP director. “Earning and saving more money can actually make some families worse off financially when states set very restrictive eligibility requirements for important work supports. So, even as the economy rebounds, having an effective mix of social programs that support employment, savings, and family health are critical in states looking to help low-income households get ahead financially.  Our policy tracker helps identify state best practices to alleviate poverty.”

The NCCP 50-State Policy Tracker makes it easy for policymakers, journalists, social researchers, and advocates to quickly and accurately compare state policies and programs vital to the well-being of low-income families. It includes key state data for 10 important social programs including childcare subsidies, earned income tax credit, family and medical leave, income tax policy, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and unemployment insurance.

The 2015 update to the tracker introduces two new policy dimensions for inter-state comparison:

Users can select from more than 40 other policies for comparison in a single state, states in the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West, or all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The tool’s output is displayed in a table, and numerical data (e.g., the state minimum wage) can be ranked in order. A glossary provides users with additional explanations of how the ten programs work and defines the categories used to compare programs across states.

The NCCP 50-State Policy Tracker can be found online at