Holes in the net

Recently, The New York Times had a front-page article spotlighting the extent to which victims of the economic downturn are able to access public benefits that are part of the nation’s safety net.  Most programs, including Unemployment Insurance, food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, and cash assistance, operate as state-federal partnerships in which eligibility rules and administrative practices can vary greatly from one state to another, as well as from one program to another.  This can lead to major disparities in program participation rates across states. For example, 67 percent of the unemployed receive jobless benefits in New Jersey and Idaho, but just 25 percent in Texas.

The Times presents a 50-state table of participation rates in six public benefit programs. Their data shows that Oklahoma is slightly above the national average in the share of eligible individuals receiving food stamp benefits (69 percent compared to 67 percent nationally); the share of eligible households receiving public housing assistance (32 percent compared to 30 percent nationally), and share of uninsured low-income children covered by public health care programs (77 percent compared to 73 percent nationally).

By contrast, we rank in the bottom fifth of states in the following:

  • Just 6 percent of poor Oklahomans receive cash assistance, compared to 21 percent nationally. As we noted in a recent blog post ( “What if we threw a recession and no one showed up at the welfare office?”), TANF caseloads continue to decline in Oklahoma even as poverty rates rise, more people are out of work, and caseloads rise nationally;
  • Only 29 percent of unemployed Oklahomans receive Unemployment Insurance benefits, compared to the national average of 44 percent. A measure to encourage states to extend UI to more unemployed workers was included in this year’s stimulus bill and is under consideration by the Oklahoma Legislature (see our Issue Brief on the subject);
  • Our share of uninsured poor adults covered by public health insurance programs is just 31 percent, ten points below the national average, reflecting Oklahoma’s very stringent Medicaid eligibility limits for non-disabled adults. Extending Medicaid eligibility to include all adults below the poverty level, as we have argued, could assist this vulnerable population.

As the article makes clear, the safety net as a whole is a patchwork of distinct and often conflicting rules and standards which is in great need of comprehensive review and reform. With tough times continuing and state budget cuts on the horizon, simply making sure that more people don’t fall through the net entirely will be a great challenge in the months ahead.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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