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date: 23 May 2019

Income Security

Abstract and Keywords

The United States is undergoing tremendous changes in economic conditions and in demographics. However, the concept of income security and income security measures are often the reflections of the country's long-held value system regarding tolerance of the size of the welfare state and the choice of strategies for dealing with income security for certain segments of the population. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution prevents the federal government from federalizing the financing of many income-security programs. Because of the traditional belief system, together with the constitutional constraints, the approach taken to address the current problems is often ineffective and obsolete. This entry provides a glimpse of how income policy is developed in the United States with inappropriate assumptions and rationality.

Keywords: income security, demographic changes, economic conditions, the elderly, children

Income security is the assurance of a minimum level of income to individuals, families, and households, regardless of their participation in the labor force. It is also the assurance that wages lost because of social and economic hazards that are identified by law will be replaced at least partially (Lampman, 1984). While some factors, such as the growth in the elderly population, affect income security measures across many countries, the philosophical grounds and the approach taken for distributing income transfers, particularly to subpopulations who are targeted for the distribution, are unique to the United States. This entry highlights the aspects of income security that are pertinent and unique to the United States.

Changing Economic Conditions and Demographics

Growing Inequality

Income distribution has become more unequal in the United States (Danzinger & Reed, 1999). Moreover, the speed of change has been faster than in many other industrialized societies (Burtless, 1999). While poverty makes policy makers focus largely on the population who are living on the “edge,” growing inequality makes policy makers pay attention to problems that affect the entire society. However, inequality and poverty are technically linked in that the poverty rate is higher when inequality is higher, even though the median income is the same.

Graph 1 shows that the share of aggregate income by the top quintile of U.S. households increased from 43.8% in 1967 to 50.1% in 2001 (or a 14.4% increase) and that the share of the bottom quintile declined from 4.0% to 3.5% (or a 12.5% decrease). The shares of the other quintiles in between declined as well (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005a).

Likewise, the distribution of earnings of full-time year-round workers has become more unequal. The Gini coefficient is a measurement of inequality ranging from zero to one, with zero being perfect equality and one being total inequality. The Gini coefficient of their distribution increased from 0.340 in 1967 to 0.409 in 2001 (or a 20.3% increase—see Graph 2) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005a). It is a strong indicator of growing inequality. Income inequality among children has also been rising (Lichter & Eggebeen, 1993). In addition, the volatility in income status is greater among lower quintiles of workers than among higher quintiles (Ozawa, Kim, & Joo, 2006).

Burtless (1999) argues that inequality creates social strife between income classes. The exclusion theory argues that inequality forces children to go through different paths as they grow physically and intellectually, prevents them from being socialized in the wider society, and ultimately transforms a society into a segmented society that is devoid of a sense of community and common values (Aber, Gershoff & Brooks-Gunn, 2002; Kahn & Kamerman, 2002).

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GRAPH 1 Share of aggregate income received by each fifth of households: 1967–2001.

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GRAPH 2 Gini coefficients of earnings of full-time year round workers by sex: 1967–2001.

Changing Demographics

The United States is undergoing dramatic demographic changes.

Demographic Changes by Race and Ethnicity

The U.S. population is projected to increase from 282.2 million in 2000 to 419.9 million in 2050 (or a 48.8% increase). Table 1 indicates that the rate of increase in the number of Asians will be the fastest, followed by the rate of increase in the number of Hispanics (of any race). The lowest rate of increase (7.4%) is projected for non-Hispanic whites. Because of the different rates of increase in the number of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the composition of people by race and ethnicity is projected to be considerably different from the current one.

Table 1 The Projected Population Change in the U.S. by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000–2050



% Change, 2000–2050





White alone




Black alone




Asian alone




All other races




Hispanic (of any race)




White alone, not Hispanic




U.S. Census Bureau (2004).

Table 2 The Projected Change in Proportion of the U.S. Population by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000–2050






White alone



Black alone



Asian alone



All other races



Hispanic (of any race)



White alone, not Hispanic



U.S. Census Bureau (2004)

Table 3 The Projected Population Change in the U.S. by Age: 2000–2050



% Change, 2000–2050





















U.S. Census Bureau (2004).

Table 2 indicates that from 2000 to 2050, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites is expected to decline from 69.4% to 50.1%, the proportion of Asians is projected to increase from 3.8% to 8.0%, and the proportion of Hispanics is projected to increase from 12.6% to 24.4%.

Table 4 The Projected Change in Proportion of the U.S. Population by Age: 2000–2050


















U.S. Census Bureau (2004).

Demographic Changes by Age

The number of children aged 0–19 is projected to increase from 80.6 million in 2000 to 109.1 million in 2050 (or a 35.5% increase). In contrast, the number of elderly people aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 35.1 million in 2000 to 86.2 million in 2050 (or a 140.4% increase

As a result of such disparate rates of increase, the age composition of the U.S population is projected to change enormously (see Table 4). The proportion of elderly people is projected to increase from 12.4% to 20.7% between 2000 and 2050, while the proportion of children aged 0 to 19 is projected to decline from 28.5% to 26.0% during the same period (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

These changes pose a challenge to the United States. The number of working-age persons relative to the number of elderly people will decline, and more and more working-age persons will come from minority backgrounds. This means that future workers must become more productive. But minority-group workers typically have lower wages than white workers. Thus, in the future, the wages of minority groups must increase faster than the wages of whites.

Another economic challenge is related to the increasing proportion of minority children. Even if the children of each minority group increase their income status at the same rate as white children, the rate of increases in the income status of all children will not increase at the same rate, because demographic changes among children will be greater than among adults or elderly people. As a result, the income status of children will become even lower than the income statuses of adults or the elderly (Ozawa, 1997). The implication is that governments at all levels will need to “invest” in these minority groups of children more than ever before.

Diverging Income Status of the Young and Old

The income status of the elderly has been improving during the past four decades, so much so that the poverty rates of the elderly and children crossed between 1973 and 1974. As of 2005, the poverty rate of children was 1.74 times that of the elderly. Note that since 1993, the poverty rate of the elderly has been lower than that of adults, except in 2000 (see Graph 3; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005b).

A snapshot of income status by age groups is poignant. Governmental data indicate that as much as 39% of children, but only 17% of the elderly, are located in the bottom quintile of income distribution. Moreover, 48% and 52% of black children and Hispanic children, respectively, are located in the bottom quintile (Ozawa, 1998; U.S. Census Bureau, 1994).

The enormous decline in the poverty rate of elderly people has been largely due to public income transfers—mainly social security benefits. Without public income transfers, the income status of the elderly would have been considerably lower than that of children (Ozawa & Kim, 1998).

These trends attest to the fact that income inequality between children and the elderly has intensified partly because of the differential allocation of public income transfers. In the past, the social security program was a powerful vehicle to support children. However, because more and more children become financially needy not because of the death of their parents, but because of nonmarriage, separation, and divorce—social risks that are not identified by the social security program––survivors’ benefits have become irrelevant for an increasing number of children. In addition, with the termination of the Federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and its replacement by the more stringent Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, children have lost a financial safety net.

International Comparisons

Throughout the past century, the United States has had one of the lowest welfare rates as measured by total social welfare expenditures (Lindert, 2004). In this section, I present the trends in four countries—the United States, Sweden, Japan, and Germany.

From 1980 to 1998, the United States and Japan had the lowest level of total social welfare expenditures, ranging from 13.3% to 15.9% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States and ranging from 10.2% to 15.0% of the GDP in Japan. During the same period, the level of total social welfare expenditures ranged from 29% to 37.2% of the GDP in Sweden, with Germany's total social welfare expenditures in the middle of these extremes (see Graph 3) during the same period (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001). Graphs 4 and 5 show the different levels of public spending for the elderly and children, both cash benefits for the elderly and cash and in-kind benefits for families with children during the same period (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001). These two figures indicate that the United States had consistently small public spending for cash benefits for the elderly (including both social insurance benefits and income-tested payments) and for family benefits (both cash and in kind). As of 1998, the ratio of Sweden's public spending in cash payments for the elderly to that of the United States was 2.03:1. In the same year, the United States spent only 0.5% of its GDP for family benefits, whereas Sweden spent 3.3%, the ratio being 5.6:1.

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GRAPH 3 The trend in poverty rates of children, adults, and elderly: 1996–2005.

Graphs 4 and 5 together indicate that in 1998, Sweden's public spending for family benefits was equivalent to 44% of its spending for cash payments for the elderly. In the same year, the U.S. public spending for family benefits was equivalent to only 10% of its spending for the cash payments for the elderly.

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GRAPH 4 Total social welfare expenditures, selected countries: 1980–1998.

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GRAPH 5 Cash benefits for the elderly: 1980–1998.

These figures indicate that the U.S. social welfare expenditure is small and that a smaller portion of its expenditure is for both the elderly and families than in Sweden and Germany. Furthermore, compared to public spending for the elderly, public spending for family benefits was the smallest in Japan, followed by the United States.

The small size of the U.S. social welfare spending has long been justified on the grounds that large governmental spending results in lower economic growth and creates dependency. The logic behind this assertion is that governmental spending on income transfers decreases the incentive to work and that governmental taxing and spending will siphon off financial resources that could have been invested in the private sector. However, Lindert (2004) found that there is no correlation between the size of social welfare expenditures and the rate of economic growth.

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GRAPH 6 Family benefits (cash benefits, services, and in-kind benefits), selected countries: 1980–1998.

There has always been some resistance in the United States to providing income benefits and public support to the poor and female-headed families with children. Resentment may come from the way that the United States finances welfare programs, as well as the use of income tests and categorical eligibility. In the U.S. welfare system, it is believed that benefits should be targeted to the low-income segment of the society and that they should be financed by general revenues, largely income taxes. These approaches were chosen in the name of target efficiency and distributive efficiency. Another reason may be fairness on the financing side—that is, progressive taxes. However, the profound effect of such an approach has been the dividing of the population into those who receive and those who pay (Lindert, 2004).

Lindert (2004) contrasted the U.S. situation with that of Sweden. Although the Swedish welfare state is large and Swedes pay high taxes, worry about the adverse impact of the large welfare state is not much of a public concern. Why? Sweden seldom uses income testing; rather, it uses value-added taxes to finance social welfare programs because such taxes are pro-growth (although regressive). Thus, Sweden's approach is to provide benefits as universally as possible and to let almost every citizen pay for social welfare programs.

Income security for low-income individuals and families needs to take into account health-care costs because health care is an integral part of income security. Thus, it is important to understand how Medicaid, passed by Congress in 1965 to provide health-care financing for poor people, is financed, in particular why there are interstate differences in Medicaid benefits.

Before one investigates the degree of interstate differences in Medicaid benefits, one needs to know the adverse impact of external factors that impinge on poor states. Poor states do not have a strong economic base and, therefore, have a disproportionately large proportion of low-skilled, low-paid workers. Such states typically produce a large pool of “uninsured” persons who become applicants for Medicaid (Holahan, 2002; Shen & Zuckerman, 2003). The irony is that states that must meet the health-care needs of the uninsured are the ones that do not have adequate financial resources to finance them. In such a structural environment, it is impossible for poor states to provide Medicaid benefits to those who do not have employer-provided health-care coverage.

In addition, there are institutional impediments, the origin of which goes back to 1935. The Committee on Economic Security, which was responsible for developing the provisions in the social insurance programs (Old-Age Insurance (OAI) and Unemployment Insurance (UI) and public assistance programs (Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), Aid to the Blind (AB), and Old Age Assistance (OAA), decided that the funding of public assistance programs should be done by grants-in-aid. The committee also decided that the federal matching rate should be developed, according to state per capita income, in favor of low-income states. The committee opted for this scheme of financing because they thought that federal financing of public assistance might be declared unconstitutional (Altmer, 1966).

The adoption of the grant-in-aid approach meant that the federal government's role would be passive. That is, the states were to have the prerogative to set the level of public assistance payments and only then would federal grants-in-aid be determined according to the federal matching rates. Medicaid followed the same scheme of funding, with the states determining the levels of payments and the federal government contributing the federal resources using the federal matching formula. The matching formula ranges from 50 percent to 83 percent, depending on the per capita personal income in the states relative to the national average.

The federal matching rate seems rational and progressive, but it is not. For example, in 2001, Mississippi's average Medicaid payment per beneficiary was $3,081, the federally matched money was $2,366, and the state's net contribution per beneficiary was $715. The comparable figure in New York's Medicaid payment per beneficiary was $7,726; the federally matched money was $3,863, and its net contribution was $3,863, respectively. In short, the federal matching rate of 76.8 percent was applied to Mississippi, and the rate of 50% was applied to New York, yet, the federal subsidy for Mississippi was only $2,366, compared to $3,863 for New York. In short, where the need was greater, the federal subsidies were smaller.

The major reason for such an awkward and undesirable distribution of federal subsidies is the states' right to establish Medicaid payment levels, which are lower in poor states. The irony is that poor states are spending a greater percentage of their state domestic product to pay for the net state Medicaid payments.

Although many recommendations have been made for changing the situation (Boyd, 1998; General Accountability Office, 2003; Holahan & Liska, 1995; Miller & Schneider, 2004; Moon & Liska, 1995), they have focused largely on the federal matching ratio. Holahan (2002) is the only one who advocates a federalized system of financing Medicaid. Indeed, such a radical reform is needed to provide Medicaid payments so that all individuals and families can receive adequate health care, regardless of where they live.

The Case of Social Security

Social Security is the federal program that provides public insurance to retired and other people. Burgeoning social security expenditures will have an important effect on the level of income security of the U.S. population, since the expenditures for OASDI will increase from 4.28% of the GDP in 2005 to 6.32% of the GDP in 2080. If the expenditures for Medicare (Heath Insurance and Supplemental Medical Insurance) are added, the combined expenditures will increase to 22.5% of the GDP in 2080 (Board of Trustees, 2006), which will exceed the entire federal outlays at its historic high at 20.9% of the GDP in 1944 and 2000 (Steuerle, 2003). Thus in 2080, there will be nothing left in the federal budget to pay for any other federal programs, let alone social welfare programs. Because of the U.S. public's hesitation to expand the welfare state, the United States will face the challenge either to reduce social security benefits or raise social security payroll taxes. If neither of these actions is taken, then income security for the rest of the nation will become a moot issue. Next, I discuss the causes and scope of financial problems of social security and an alternative way to solve the problem—even if only partially.

There are four reasons why social security expenditures are exploding: First, the proportion of elderly people is increasing. Second, life expectancy at age 65 is increasing. Third, a larger proportion of workers are opting to retire before the normal retirement age. Thus, not only will there be more people on the social security benefit rolls, but once on social security, they will be receiving benefits for a longer time. As a result, the percentage of the U.S. population who will be receiving social security benefits will increase from 16.0% in 2005 to 26.7% in 2080 (Board of Trustees, 2006). Fourth, in calculating the average indexed monthly earnings (AIME), earlier earnings are indexed to the increase in average wages from year to year. This fourth reason is important as a policy issue, although the public knows little about it.

The use of price indexing, instead of wage indexing, was one of the major recommendations made by the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security (2001). For example, the index factor for earnings made in 1951 is 11.9, to make it equivalent to the earnings made in 2002. To adjust the 1951 earnings for inflation to the 2002 price level, one needs to use the index factor of only 9.9. Thus, the use of the price index, instead of the wage index, would result in lower AIMEs, which would lead to lower social security benefits.

Price indexing would result in the same level of constant purchasing power in social security benefits across cohorts, whereas wage indexing would guarantee the same replacement rates of social security benefits. As a result, social security has a built-in growth in benefits in later cohorts.

If policy makers decide to keep the status quo in terms of benefits, then social security taxes need to increase by 2.02% of the payroll, beginning now (Board of Trustees, 2006).

Most important, policy makers should recognize that the further expansion of social security expenditures will leave no federal budget to finance other social welfare programs to strengthen income security for the rest of the nation, especially children. The only alternative policy is to increase taxes and accept the expanded welfare state for the United States.

Obsolescence of “The Deserving” and “The Undeserving” Poor

For many years, U.S. policy makers have classified the recipients of public income transfers according to the degree of “deserving.” At the bottom of the deserving-undeserving scale are poor, female-headed families with children. Transfer income has always been provided to this group, but grudgingly and conditionally, such as being subjected to sanctions and a limited duration of the receipt of payments. Moreover, the classification of recipient groups is done with a moralistic overtone and stigma, and such families are blamed for their economic plight; structural reasons, such as the lack of jobs, low wages, and lack of affordable child care, are ignored (Danziger, Danziger, & Stern, 1997). Through such an unspoken dialogue between the recipients and taxpayers, these families are classified as the undeserving poor.

Implicit in the classification of families headed by women is that policy makers and the public place different family forms in a hierarchical order, from the ideal to the deviant. That is, the social treatment of families differs, depending on the type of family in which women and their children live. In a rapidly changing society, both economically and demographically, such a classification seems obsolete and counterproductive.

The rationale behind the Swedish family policy and its implementation illustrates how different the U.S. policy is from the policies of many other countries. The focal point of Swedish family policy is to address the pressure that an industrialized society imposes on working parents (Winkler, 2001). The most creative part of this policy was a consideration of “parents as individuals rather than as parts of an indivisible family unit” (Winkler, 2001, p. 31). This conceptualization of the parent-worker, regardless of family form, occurred naturally because Swedish policy makers thought that separation, divorce, nonmarriage, and the increasing incidence of cohabitation were not the causes of social problems but, instead, were different forms of adaptation to the ever-changing economic, social, and demographic conditions that were sweeping the industrialized countries. Thus, they anticipated that even married women could have different living arrangements sooner or later and that even married women with children could not escape the pressure that the parent-worker role would create. In this conceptualization, no family form is superior and no family form is deviant.

Treating women (and men) as individuals, Sweden developed a positive and comprehensive work-supportive policy and viable income transfer programs. The effects of such a policy have been encouraging. Swedish women's employment rates do not decline as a result of having children, while U.S. women's employment rates do (Gornick, Meyers, & Ross, 1996, 1998). Furthermore, the addition of one more child results in an increase in income status of female-headed households in Sweden, but results in a decrease in the United States (Ozawa & Lee, n.d.).

With rapid changes in economic conditions and demographics, classifying the recipient population into the deserving and the undeserving is becoming anachronistic and counterproductive because of the adverse impact on children of treating poor families according to this classification. The time has come to develop social policy on income security for children as an independent entity. Currently, children's income security is placed in the midst of an ideological battle on what to do with women who are poor and have children. Many decades ago, Beveridge (1942), who was a founder of the modern welfare state in Britain, argued that in developing a functional and workable income security system, policy makers need to deal with children separately and then develop a system for adults and the aged and argued against developing an income security system using families as a unit of provision (see also, Ozawa, 1982).


Not only is the size of the U.S. welfare state small, but the distribution of financial resources within it is unique to the United States. One observes enormous intergenerational differences in the allocation of financial resources in favor of the elderly and institutional implements in funding income-tested programs like Medicaid. It is important for policy makers to rethink the desirability of maintaining laws that were developed many years ago. In globally changing economic conditions, maintaining the status quo in financing Medicaid and other income-tested programs results in the perpetuation of interstate differences in the level of benefits and, therefore, the perpetuation of interstate differences in income security. Such a perpetuation of interstate inequality in income security is not in the interest of the United States as a whole. Furthermore, it seems no longer appropriate to classify recipients of public income transfers into the deserving and the undeserving. The stakes are high in nurturing and investing in children, and maintaining such a classification system will constitute a barrier to addressing a future policy agenda to develop better income security for children.

Many industrialized societies are shifting their attention from the old to the young. They recognize that in the face of a shrinking population, nurturing and investing in children, as well as encouraging women to bear more children, is the key to their national survival (Siegel, 2006; Walker, 2006; World Bank, 2006). The shrinkage of the population is not much of an issue in the United States yet, but it seems obvious that the attempt to increase income security and enhance the well-being of children will be an important and necessary policy agenda in the United States in the future.


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Further Reading

Cornia, G. A. (1997). Child poverty and deprivation in the industrialized countries from the end of world war II to the end of the cold war era. In G. A. Cornia & S. Danziger (Eds.), Child poverty and deprivation in the industrialized countries, 1945–1995 (pp. 25–63). Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.Find this resource: