Social Security’s Role in Economic Security: Evidence and Insight from an Analysis of Multiprogram Participation

Published: 2023


We use the 2014 and 2018 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation to assess multiprogram participation — the number of public programs or subsidies that an individual is a beneficiary of at a given time. Our aim is to understand the combined reach of the 16 programs that constitute the country’s social welfare system. We start by mapping participation across age and income groups, and then use regressions to identify what predicts participation or lack of participation among those same groups. We end with a comparison of household income shares from private income, from all public benefits aside from Social Security, and benefits from Social Security. There is no normative assessment of whether more program participation is good or bad, however, we do find evidence of a fractured system and Social Security as a bedrock of household income among the poor.

Key Findings

    • In the density analysis, we mapped participation in 16 programs in age and age-by-income groups. We found:
      • Children, even those in extremely low-income households, have unpredictable participation in programs.
      • Nonelderly adults participate in the fewest programs and have the highest rate of nonparticipation, even among those in extremely low-income households.
      • Elderly adults have the lowest nonparticipation and most predictable pattern of multiprogram participation.
    • In the pattern analysis, we used regressions to predict which demographic features are associated with nonparticipation. We found:
      • Child participation rates, both nonparticipation and multiprogram participation (defined as participation in two or more programs), varies by race/ethnicity, even accounting for differences in disability status and household income. Differences in participation based on race/ethnicity are larger than those predicted by disability status, despite disability status being a prerequisite for some programs while race/ethnicity is not explicitly tied to any program requirements.
      • Despite the large reach of Social Security and Medicare to elderly adults, Hispanic elderly adults are notably less likely to participate in either program.


Coe, Jessie, Kathryn Anne Edwards, and Daniel Schwam. 2023. “Social Security’s Role in Economic Security: Evidence and Insight from an Analysis of Multiprogram Participation.” Ann Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center (MRDRC) Working Paper; MRDRC WP 2023-478.