Census: Millions of Americans With College Degrees Utilize Social Safety Net Programs

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Expected Family Contribution (EFC); Need Analysis

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

While adults without education beyond high school make up the majority of participants in four key social safety net programs, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows roughly 1 out of 7 recipients of such benefits were college graduates — and even more had some form of postsecondary education.

The findings from 2017 data tables recently released by the Census Bureau "reveal the broad socioeconomic range of adults who rely on government assistance."

In 2017, about 9 million adults with at least some college education — including those who attended college but never earned a degree, those who earned an associate degree, and those who earned a bachelor's degree or higher — participated in at least one of the four key government assistance programs highlighted in the census data: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Among the college-educated adults who received benefits through the four programs, roughly 4 million had at least an associate degree and about 2 million had a bachelor's degree or higher, while more than 5 million had attended some amount of college, yet held no degree. 

Notably, a blog post summarizing the findings said most of those who attended college but had not graduated were not enrolled in any education program within the last year when data was collected, suggesting they were not actively pursuing a degree, which "is consistent with many programs limiting access to benefits for many college students."

For instance, the SNAP program has strict work and eligibility requirements for enrolled college students. However, the eligibility restrictions were loosened recently to provide students with additional relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to permanently provide low-income students with access to SNAP.

The figures documenting the amount of Americans needing food assistance before the pandemic exacerbated hunger in the country is significant. Roughly 3 million college graduates, including more than 1.5 million bachelor's degree holders, received SNAP benefits in 2017.

Of the individuals with bachelor's degrees who were receiving SNAP benefits, nearly 64% were women. And while Black adults made up about 9% of those with a bachelor's degree in the country, they made up a quarter of those with a bachelor's degree who were also receiving SNAP.

Likewise, Hispanic adults comprise slightly less than 9% of all adults with a bachelor's degree, but more than 18% of those with a bachelor's degree who received SNAP benefits.

In some programs, those with either an associate or bachelor's degree accounted for as many as 1 in 5 of some programs' participants, such as WIC, where those with a degree made up more than 19%.


Publication Date: 5/17/2021

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