The unprecedented increase in American incarceration rates over the past four decades has created what some scholars describe as a new social caste: the formerly incarcerated (Uggen, Manza, and Thompson 2006). Among non-institutionalized working age adults, former prisoners accounted for roughly 20 percent of the black population and one-quarter of all adults with less than a high school education in 2008. Prior research demonstrates that formerly incarcerated individuals face significant labor market penalties that are likely to put them in financially precarious positions, possibly for many years following release. While former drug offenders are prohibited from receiving some social safety net benefits (e.g., food stamps, TANF) in some states, most former offenders are permitted to utilize a variety of safety net programs that could provide some financial stability and reduce temptation to make money through illegal activities. We do not currently have good estimates of the extent to which formerly incarcerated adults actually utilize social safety net resources, however. Moreover, research suggesting that individuals who have had contact with the criminal justice system have lower levels of trust in government and avoid interactions with institutions that keep formal records (Brayne 2014; Weaver and Lerman 2010) could mean that incarcerated adults fail to utilize social safety net resources, despite need.
This paper uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and 1997 cohorts to estimate how much formerly incarcerated individuals draw upon five social safety net programs: disability/SSI, AFDC/TANF, unemployment insurance, food stamps/SNAP, and the earned income tax credit. In particular, I consider (1) how utilization of these programs differs between otherwise similar individuals who have and have not been incarcerated, (2) how utilization changes over the life course, (3) how utilization of public assistance programs compares to utilization of contributory social insurance programs among formerly incarcerated individuals, (4) whether formerly incarcerated individuals exhibit system avoidance behaviors (Brayne 2014) by underutilizing programs that require more in-person interaction and keep more records (e.g., disability), and (5) how utilization patterns have changed across cohorts in light of the imposition of TANF and SNAP eligibility restrictions for former drug offenders starting in the late 1990s. Initial analyses indicate that formerly incarcerated individuals do not exhibit system avoidance behavior in their utilization of safety net programs, but do rely disproportionately on public assistance programs rather than social insurance programs. In exploring these questions, this paper provides important baseline knowledge of the extent to which America’s social safety net is supporting individuals who have come out of prisons and jails across the life course.