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How the safety net leaves out poor, unmarried men

The traditional safety net has often excluded single, low-income men. Both parties say they want to change that.
A man sits on a table at the Urban Ministry soup kitchen in Charlotte, N.C.
A man sits on a table at the Urban Ministry soup kitchen in Charlotte, N.C.

When the modern safety net was first conceived, poor single men often weren't even on the agenda. 

The first priority was the poor children and the women who were often their primary caregivers. The assumption was that single adults without dependent children didn't need the extra government help. "We've always thought about men being able to pull themselves up by bootstraps, who've never needed support," says Joe Jones, President and CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore. "Women and children are considered to be more vulnerable."

But it's becoming increasingly clear that designing the safety net this way has ended up excluding a group that's become increasingly at risk: poor, unmarried men. Lawmakers from both parties are now looking at policy changes that would help bring them in.

In his 2015 budget released this week, President Obama included a new proposal to double the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults and non-custodial parents. The administration has framed the plan as a broad poverty-fighting measure that would help an estimated 13.5 million working Americans, about 55% of them male. 

More specifically, however, the expansion would target a group that Obama has recently made a priority in his second term: at-risk, young minority men. Of the 7.4 million men who'd benefit from an expanded EITC, more than 43% are African-American or Latino, according to White House estimates. 

"Notwithstanding its name, many of those who would benefit from expanding the 'childless' worker EITC are noncustodial parents, especially fathers. Encouraging these fathers to participate in the labor market and supplementing their incomes will likely benefit their children as well," White House economist Jason Furman wrote this week. 

Currently, the EITC is heavily weighted toward helping adults with dependent children. Single working adults with two children who earn less than $43,756 can claim a $5,460 maximum credit in 2014. By contrast, adults without qualifying children can't receive the credit unless they earn less than $14,590, and the maximum benefit is only $496. (Only custodial parents claim tax credits for a qualifying child, even if the non-custodial parents pay child support.) And the nominal credit for childless adults didn't even exist until 1993, 15 years after the EITC first became law.

Obama's proposal would double the maximum credit to $1,000 and increase the maximum qualifying income to $18,000 for childless adults and non-custodial parents. It would also lower the qualifying age to 21 years for those living independently from their parents and raise the age limit from 65 to 67 years. The credit is refundable, meaning that any amount above a household's tax liability is paid back as a refund—part of the reason it's proven so effective at reducing poverty.

The EITC also increases as poor workers earn more, incentizing work, which is why Republicans have long championed the program. Many conservative policy experts have endorsed an expansion like Obama's; GOP Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed a EITC replacement aimed at achieving similar ends. Paul Ryan is another fan. "It gives families flexibility – it helps them take ownership of their lives,” he said in a January speech. 

But there are other, more politically controversial policy overhauls that would also help bring this group into the safety net. Medicaid has traditionally only covered adults with dependent children, the disabled, and the low-income elderly. Obamacare's expansion extends coverage to the group that's been left out: childless adults, non-custodial parents, and everyone else who earns up to 133 percent above the poverty line. 

Of the 17 million people originally intended to be covered Medicaid expansion, about 70% of them are adults without dependent children; about 60% are minorities, and more than half are 19-34 years old, according to Rachel Garfield, associate director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. That includes about 4.5 million are young, minority men without dependent children, she adds. (The figures don't count for immigration status, which would disqualify some from Medicaid.)

That's a big selling point for the expansion's supporters. Vicki Turetsky, Commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, recalls visiting a program for non-custodial fathers decades earlier. "The men couldn’t pay child support because they couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t get jobs because they did not have front teeth," Turetsky writes

Some Republicans who've opposed the Medicaid expansion have still recognized the need to expand coverage to childless adults. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has rejected the Obamacare funds but instead has pledged to add 83,000 childless adults to the state Medicaid program—though he'd also move those who have incomes above the poverty line to the Obamacare exchange. 

The trade-off in Wisconsin points to the central obstacle when it comes to creating a more inclusive safety net: Republicans are reluctant to expand low-income tax credits or health coverage without making reductions elsewhere. Rubio's EITC alternative would increase subsidies for childless adults but would likely reduce them for those with children. Meanwhile, Obama's proposal to expand both the EITC and the child tax credit would cost $60 billion, paid for closing tax loopholes for the wealthy—something Republicans have repeatedly rejected. 

Local and state officials are trying to find ways around the impasse in Washington. New York City is currently conducting a three-year, pilot program to expand the EITC to low-income workers without dependent children. The $11 million program is significantly more generous than Obama's, offering up to $2,000 a year for single workers earning up to $26,800 a year.

NYC's program has just finished enrolling participants, but the coordinators say the next challenge is making sure they stay in touch. "It takes a while for knowledge and for people to trust the program in the community," says Cynthia Miller, a senior fellow at think-tank MDRC, which is helping to run the pilot. 

"It's a trust issue," explains Jones of the Center for Urban Families. "We have so many people—low-income, minority men—who don't necessary think of these systems as places that are necessarily for them."