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Working Paper

Homelessness and the Persistence of Deprivation: Income, Employment, and Safety Net Participation

National Bureau of Economic Research

April 17, 2024


Homelessness is arguably the most extreme hardship associated with poverty in the United States, yet people experiencing homelessness are excluded from official poverty statistics and much of the extreme poverty literature. This paper provides the most detailed and accurate portrait to date of the level and persistence of material disadvantage faced by this population, including the first national estimates of income, employment, and safety net participation based on administrative data. Starting from the first large and nationally representative sample of adults recorded as sheltered and unsheltered homeless taken from the 2010 Census, we link restricted-use longitudinal tax records and administrative data on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare, Medicaid, Disability Insurance (DI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), veterans’ benefits, housing assistance, and mortality. Nearly half of these adults had formal employment in the year they were observed as homeless, and nearly all either worked or were reached by at least one safety net program. Nevertheless, their incomes remained low for the decade surrounding an observed period of homelessness, suggesting that homelessness tends to arise in the context of long-term, severe deprivation rather than large and sudden losses of income. People appear to experience homelessness because they are very poor despite being connected to the labor market and safety net, with low permanent incomes leaving them vulnerable to the loss of housing when met with even modest disruptions to life circumstances.

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