COVID-19 and the US Safety Net*

Robert A. Moffitt, James P. Ziliak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 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

Funding Information:
We received excellent research assistance from Hyein Kang and Kenneth Tester. J. Ziliak gratefully acknowledges support from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, grant AE00103, through the Institute for Research on Poverty at University of Wisconsin. This work has been supported by the Nuffield Foundation via the IFS Deaton Review, ‘Inequality in the Twenty‐First Century’ (reference WEL/43603). We thank two reviewers, Peter Germanis, Zach Parolin, Lara Shore‐Sheppard, Tim Smeeding, and David Splinter, for helpful comments on an earlier draft. The opinions and conclusions are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of any sponsor.

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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