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?


This study will recruit from unionized hospital workers who have received at least wage increases. They must be parents of children twelve and under and earn less than $16 per hour.

Research Method

This research will draw from the quantitative data already collected through the Hospital Workers Study. The survey includes detailed questions about income and benefits receipt, querying participants not only about actual receipt, but also about eligibility, whether they have applied for each benefit type, and, for those they do receive, whether they are concerned about losing this benefit when their wage rate increases.

Additionally, we will collect new qualitative data for this study using semi-structured interview guides and life history calendars. In-depth interviews enable us to hear from workers about their particular experiences of negotiating the challenges they face and the changes they experience when their wages increase.


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation