COVID-19 and the US Safety Net*

Robert A. Moffitt, James P. Ziliak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


We examine trends in employment, earnings and incomes over the last two decades in the United States, and how the safety net has responded to changing fortunes, including the shutdown of the economy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The US safety net is a patchwork of different programmes providing in-kind as well as cash benefits, and it had many holes prior to the pandemic. In addition, few of the programmes are designed explicitly as automatic stabilisers. We show that the safety net response to employment losses in the COVID-19 pandemic largely consists only of increased support from unemployment insurance and food assistance programmes, an inadequate response compared with the magnitude of the downturn. We discuss options to reform social assistance in the United States to provide more robust income floors in times of economic downturns.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)515-548
Number of pages34
JournalFiscal Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. Fiscal Studies published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. on behalf of Institute for Fiscal Studies


  • COVID-19
  • automatic stabilisers
  • means-tested transfers
  • social insurance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Economics and Econometrics


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