Making Ends Meet: How Low-Income DI Beneficiaries Meet Their Needs

DRC Working Paper Number: 2019-02
Publisher: Washington, DC: Center for Studying Disability Policy, Mathematica
Apr 30, 2019
Authors
Jack Gettens and Alexis Henry

Key Findings:

  • Study participants used their formal income, mainly DI payments, to support most of their consumption and thus, consumption levels for most were low. Nearly all participants reported living month-to-month without accumulating savings or debt. Most participants reported that they were ‘just getting by’ or ‘finding it difficult to get by.’
  • In addition to formal income, study participants used in-kind resources and informal income to support consumption. With the exceptions of health care, these resources were relatively modest. Nearly all participants accessed healthcare services through Medicare and Medicaid with minimal out-of-pocket expenditures. Public housing subsidies accounted for approximately 34% of participants’ housing consumption and SNAP food assistance accounted for approximately 27% of participants’ food consumption.
  • Nearly all participants reported consumption limitations and some participants reported more severe hardships including homelessness, skipping meals, or having very limited food quantity or quality at the end of the month.

More than one in three Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) beneficiaries are living in- or near-poverty and how these low-income beneficiaries make ends meet is uncertain. One possible explanation is that DI beneficiaries’ primarily base their consumption on their income and therefore their consumption levels are low. A second possible explanation is that DI beneficiaries have access to resources to support consumption at levels beyond what is suggested by their poverty level income, for example in-kind income or informal income.This study assessed how low-income DI beneficiaries make ends meet. We used qualitative methods, interviewing 35 low-income DI beneficiaries living in the Worcester Massachusetts area to determine how they managed their income, expenses, savings and debt to meet their needs. The interviews with study participants included questions on expenses, income, savings, debt, strategies to make ends meet, and well-being. We use participant’s reported expenditures and in-kind income to obtain an estimate of total consumption. The study participants were not randomly selected and the findings cannot be generalized to the national population of low-income DI beneficiaries.