The Public Benefits Cliff Study

In our work with hospital workers, we were surprised to find low uptake of public benefits. Local policy makers were concerned that low-income families may not be taking full advantage of these programs, or possibly be experiencing a “benefits cliff” due to wage increases.  The “benefits cliff” describes the reduction in eligibility for means-tested public supports that occurs as wages increase, which is sometimes experienced as a sudden loss of benefits and other times manifests as decreasing support that cancels out the effects of wage increases. This research will explore these concerns in-depth by completing in-depth interviews and life histories with parents earning wage increases with children 12 and under. This research is just beginning with data collection beginning in Spring 2020.


Research Objectives

  • Why do so few families of low-wage service workers utilize public benefits for which they are eligible?
  • How does raising wages affect low-wage parents’ access to public benefits, and, therefore, their ability to support and provide for their young children?
  • Do available benefits match what families need? In other words, why is it that families who have hardships are not eligible for benefits they obviously need?
  • How do parents’ experiences differ by race/ ethnicity, gender, and other sociodemographic characteristics?

Research Sample & Method

Twenty-five parents of young children who received the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2019, had used at least one other public benefit during their parenthood, and had earned at least one raise in the three years preceding the interview participated in the study. All parents participated in two interviews using semi-structured life history calendar and in-depth interviewing methodologies. Participants were predominantly Black single mothers and earned an average of $25,000 annually. Thematic coding and within and cross case analysis were used to understand differences in parents’ experiences by level of labor attachment. Additionally, we have quantitative data on these subjects drawn from the hospital workers study. 


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Products from This Research

Conference Presentations

Ballentine, K.L., Goodkind, S., & Shook, J. Symposium. Using life history calendars to understand the benefits cliff among lower-wage parents. Association for Public Policy and Management, Fall 2021 Conference, March 2022. [Date shifted due to COVID-19]

Ballentine, K. L., Goodkind, S., Shook, J., Gomez, E., & Patel, N. Oral Paper submitted as ePoster due to COVID-19. Examining how raises affect public benefits access for lower wage workers in the era of the fight for $15. Society for Social Work Research, 26th Annual Conference, January 2022.

Research Briefs & Reports

Earned Income Tax Credit Access