Children Experiencing Cost-Driven Residential Moves 44% More Likely to Lose Key Social Safety Net Benefits

A study published in Pediatrics, “Moving Because of Unaffordable Housing and Disrupted Social Safety Net Access among Children,” found that caregivers with children who moved due to unaffordable housing costs were more likely to experience disrupted access to social safety net programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Medicaid help to reduce food and health costs for families, which can prevent or minimize the harm of cost-driven moves. Yet, as the new research shows, many families with children lose these benefits at times when they need them most.

The researchers analyzed Children’s HealthWatch survey data from 2011 to 2019 on 9,344 families with children under four years old who were eligible for SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid and resided in Maryland or Pennsylvania. Caregivers who lived in more than one residence in the prior year were asked to provide the most important reason for their move. Moves were determined to be cost-driven if the primary reason for the move was related to paying rent or mortgage; eviction; foreclosure; becoming homeless; or a lack of access to housing subsidies. All other moves were classified as not cost-driven. Benefits were deemed disrupted if respondents were previously enrolled in SNAP or WIC but were not receiving benefits at the time they were surveyed, or if Medicaid was defined as noncontinuous over the past year. Families who transitioned out of these programs due to becoming income-ineligible or obtaining private insurance in the prior year were excluded from the analysis. 

The researchers found that 21% of children followed during the study period experienced a disruption in coverage for at least one of the three programs. Among these children, 75% experienced a disruption to WIC, 20% a disruption to SNAP, and 16% a disruption to Medicaid. Among all children followed, 5% experienced a cost-driven move in the prior year, and 25% experienced a non-cost-driven move. Most caregivers (67%) who experienced a cost-driven move cited paying rent or mortgage as the primary reason for their move, followed by eviction (17%) and foreclosure (12%). Caregivers who experienced cost-driven moves had lower educational attainment and lower household incomes than caregivers who experienced non-cost-driven moves.

The researchers found that all moves – regardless of the primary cause – were associated with an increased likelihood of disruption to any benefit, but the association was stronger for cost-driven moves than for non-cost-driven moves. Roughly 26% of children with cost-driven moves experienced disrupted access to at least one benefit, as compared to 22% of children with non-cost-driven moves and 20% of children who did not move. When controlling for other factors, the researchers found that children who experienced cost-driven moves were 44% more likely to experience a disruption to at least one benefit compared to children who did not move. When examining each program individually, cost-driven moves increased the odds of disruption to SNAP by 93%, to Medicaid by 86%, and to WIC by 35%.

The researchers hypothesized that the association between cost-driven moves and subsequent benefit disruption could be due to caregivers either not receiving information regarding program recertification due to address changes or not being able to act on the information due to increased stress. They call on health providers and clinic-based social workers to routinely screen patients for housing insecurity and provide outreach to families at risk to ensure continuous benefit enrollment. They also call on policymakers to design benefit programs with housing insecurity in mind, for example, by reducing administrative burdens related to (re)certification, allowing dual eligibility, and shifting to remote models for delivering benefits. Furthermore, the researchers note that to reduce the risk of cost-driven moves for children receiving social safety net benefits, it is important to increase the supply of affordable housing and implement universal housing assistance, focusing interventions on communities most at risk for cost-driven moves, including households of color.

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