30 Issues: Holes in the Safety Net

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

30 Issues in 30 Days is our election year series on the important issues facing the country this election year. Today: Where the government stands in its coverage of the neediest Americans. Visit the 30 Issue home page for all the conversations.

Open Prep: Questions, Articles, and Links to Get You Started

Key Questions

  • Where are the gaps in coverage for the very poor, and is there room in the budget to fix them?
  • How has the distribution in aid changed since 2008?
  • Would Romney end the safety net as we know it?
  • Did Obama really end the work requirement for welfare recipients?
  • Is too much aid going to wealthy recipients?

What are your key questions on this topic? Post them below and get the conversation going!


David Jones, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Community Service Society of New York, gives his perspective on what the federal government can do to help the very poor, and where both candidates stand.

Ron Haskins, former White House and congressional advisor on welfare issues, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and Budgeting for National Priorities, and author of Work over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, gives his take on the history of the social net, who it protects and what it ideally should be.

Got a Follow Up?

Each Friday we'll be following up on one of that week's issues. Got a particular follow-up question from this conversation? Comment below or tweet us. 

Comments [49]

RosieNYC from NYC

Regarding the statement that says that companies need to bring foreigners because there are not enough qualified Americans to do the jobs, when it comes to Information Technology, that is not the case. Because of the way many American corporations are abusing the H1B visa, many I.T. departments are now staffed by an extraordinary number of workers from India, some of them performing roles so basic that there is no way those roles require "scarce or unique" skills supposedly required for that type of visa.

Oct. 03 2012 06:08 PM
Polly from Columbus Circle

I can't access the articles related to your 30 issues in 30 days. I just get comments on Longform or go from one web page to another.

Oct. 03 2012 12:14 PM
Amy from Manhattan

T&B, I think I agree w/your post below more than anything I've read from you before! But I'm not so sure that if Mitt Romney walked around NYC for a week, he *would* see what you & I see, or at least see it the same way. It might depend on whether he talked to any of the homeless people or those begging on the street (not always the same people).

Oct. 03 2012 12:08 PM
Rivka Steinberg from New Brunswick, NJ

I'm listening to your Issue #13 discussion and I find myself, once again, very frustrated. I am an educator, special and 'regular' and a licensed clinical social worker and I have worked with children of all ages over for at least 30 years. I have worked in private schools as well as public schools (the latter as a psychotherapist in an "Abbott" district in New Jersey.)
I have counseled SECOND graders who have reading deficits who by fourth grade have been so marginalized and demoralized, "educational interventions" notwithstanding, who by seventh/eighth grade and certainly by high school, have completely given up. We know the story.....
I have seen administrators and educators who really have no clue how to effectively intervene. I have seen school principals who don't really don't understand the basic issues and persist in using punitive measures to maintain an artificial form of 'order' when tensions erupt, which further compound the growing alienation of students.
What I haven't seen is the realization that if students can't read by the time they are in grades four and five, the future becomes very bleak and the rest of us persist in attempts to push that rock up the mountain.
What I haven't seen is a comprehensive and intelligent attempt to address the increasingly pervasive reading deficits: IF THE POWERS THAT BE STOP PAYING SO MUCH MONEY FOR COMPUTERS (WHICH ARE NICE BUT NOT ALWAYS ESSENTIAL), AND ALLOCATE FUNDS TO HIRE VERY WELL TRAINED READING SPECIALISTS--A LOT OF THEM--TO TEACH READING IN THE YOUNGER GRADES, I'LL BET THAT MORE STUDENTS WILL NOT DROP OUT OF SCHOOL BY THE TIME THEY REACH HIGH SCHOOL. I am not being reductionistic or idealistic--I'm a very pragmatic individual. Education departments of teaching colleges, and there are so many of them, should be given funds to TRAIN more reading specialists.
I find that there is a tremendous disconnect between what is taught in teachers colleges and how much actually gets transmitted to the classroom. Also, the lovely research that universities continue to create does not filter down to the actual classroom. I didn't see the benefits of research and teacher training in the classrooms I observed. What I saw were frustrated and tired teachers worrying about the principal's pressure to raise their students' performance on the NJ ASK test!!
When one investigates the educational histories of many if not the majority of high school dropouts, we will find that they cannot read and they are ashamed that they cannot read. Sadly, there is the presence of a "learned helplessness" on the part of many students as well as the educational system.

Oct. 03 2012 11:56 AM
Dano from Kearny, NJ might recall that I watched my wife use the snowblower that my three sons got her for Christmas durung the Adult Snow Day two years ago. Well, we've been worried about her climbing out the upper floor windows to clean the house gutters so we got her a nice aluminum extension ladder that reaches even the upper levels!

We are not as bad it we sound, the boys will carry the ladder to and from the garage for her.

It is a GREAT marriage!

Oct. 03 2012 11:56 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I have a cousin who has a Ph.D. and was teaching at a university, but not earning enough to live on his own. He finally left his job there and is back in school getting a Masters so that he can teach in a public high school and make enough money to live on. What's wrong with this picture?

Oct. 03 2012 11:54 AM
Henry from Katonah

The top 1% pay 40% of all income taxes because thet have such high incomes! I thank them for their contribution to the federal treasury, but think that they COULD pay more. They benefit from such a lot of the federal apparatus - - the court system, our infrastructure, education for workers ...

Oct. 03 2012 11:50 AM
Marc from Manhattan, L.E.S.

I recently read an exactly similar series of comment in The Times (pehaps invilving the same guy? See exchange below). One of the commenters said that he is a chemical engineering Ph.d. who - after being laid off at age 50 - wentback to school to upgrade his skills and still cannot get a job. This begs the question (not asked by you Brian nor any journalist/interviewer I have encountered) as to whether the real reason we are hiring foreigners rather than fully qualified Americans who happwn to be older, is that the foreigners are cheaper?

Columbus, Ohio


My company and others like mine constantly look for engineers and scientists with post-graduate education. The pay is good (approximately $90K for a starting Ph.D. chemical engineer). But, we seldom find American students. We have to hire foreign students and spend more money getting them the needed visa to work here. Something wrong with this picture? American students from middle school onwards look upon science as geeky (reinforced by shows like Big Bang Theory). Our country is going to have a huge deficit of engineers and scientists in the future as my generation retires and this should be a great opportunity for the younger generation. But strangely, for all the hand wringing about student loans and lack of employment opportunities, we are not producing enough American students to fill this yawning gap.

Sept. 15, 2012 at 3:58 a.m.

This reply was published here:

Reply to second Comment:

Manhattan, NY

Having read your comment and your reply to Mr. Scotland, I apprecite the sincerity of your concern for the future regarding the lack of young entrants into Engineering and other demanding science and math dominate disciplines. But, what I cannot understand is why - in the abscence of qualified young graduates to fill openings today, does your company prefer to hire foreigners rather than older but fully qualified, experienced and up to speed Americans? After all, a man in his 40's or 50's has obligations and in the current unemployment environment, no doubt there are many who would willingly accept a $90K salary with some benefits. As well, even someone in their 50's can be expected to work for up to 20 years.

Can it be, that young students avoid the rigors of engineering study because they have heard stories like that of Mr. Scotland, and don't want to risk working so hard just to wind up deeply in debt and unemployed at at age 45 give or take when there is strong pressure to raise the SS and Medicare qualification age ever closer to 70 years and beyond?

Of course, hiring older workers at entry level salaries would not preclude continuing to advocate for ways to increase the number of new, young, engineering candidates in our universities

Oct. 03 2012 11:48 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Oh, RJ` from prospect hts, right ON.
Poverty-ignorance is a major obstacle here.
The DETAILS of poverty are simply lost on too many people.
Especially these clueless Daniel Patrick Moynihan-type so-called experts. The irony.

Oct. 03 2012 11:48 AM
Christine from Yorktown

Mary: Agree that we need jobs at a living wage but things have changed. We no longer have manufacturing jobs like we used to in this global economy. I see people working at my local Walmart that aren't even qualified for that (but they need workers so they hire what they can). You can't get a job without enough education to count change and with out any skills to bring to market. And not sure if you've heard this, many who have been on welfare simply don't have the "rules of the job" understanding to keep a job. That you have to show up every day and be on time for example.

Oct. 03 2012 11:46 AM

There is, in fact, a serious individual responsibilty problem in this country.

Oct. 03 2012 11:46 AM
Mary from NYC

My ears are bleeding. How can low income people work at low wage jobs such as Wall Mart provides (that puts all other local small biz and mom and pops out of biz) and the corporations take their labor jobs to lower wage paying jobs overseas?

It's access to jobs with a living wage... not poor people.

Oct. 03 2012 11:42 AM
fuva from harlemworld

This poverty analysis lacks critical nuance. Different groups are poor for different reasons. Without this awareness, there will be no effective address of this issue.

Oct. 03 2012 11:42 AM
Christine from Yorktown

Agree with the many comments about education. And not just the pre-college, push for all to go to universities. I have met many people who are poor and on welfare (used to work as a paramedic in these neighborhoods.) They're never going to college. We need trade skills and that's going to continue to be a need. High Schools should have more trade school opportunities instead of trying to shove everyone off to a college.

Oct. 03 2012 11:41 AM
RJ` from prospect hts

Yes, you have to work for low-level benefits at the same time as spending time with children on their education and protecting them from the streets, and shopping for and preparing healthy meals, and educating themselves, because the literacy rate in the US is pathetically low, and standing on endless lines for the pathetic benefits they get--for health care, filling out housing forms, finding "affordable" housing ... Oh, and they shouldn't be eligible for full labor rights. This is just an outrageous, untenable, absolutely unrealistic set of burdens that corporate leaderships with tax avoidance benefits ("welfare") are not required--or monitored intently (what can they spend their taxpayer-subsidized benefits on?)--to do. Outrageous.

Oct. 03 2012 11:40 AM
Mary from NYC

Please ask the guest if he's ever known anyone on food stamps or welfare? Not studying it, but actually knows people on these systems. It's incredulous he makes these general claims.

Oct. 03 2012 11:37 AM
fuva from harlemworld

hjs11211, you're on point with that one. To deny the downward pressure of immigration on wages, work availability and work conditions is to deny very basic economic principles...

Oct. 03 2012 11:37 AM
Mr. M from paterson

To the reformer of welfare:
I work with families and individuals who are on TANF and Cash Welfare. The limit of 5 years and work requirement is difficult to measure especially during this time that have not increase and people are being discharged/terminated from these programs. The 5 year limit also is being by passed by a medical form that is provided to a Dr. in order for the people to continue in the benefits.

Oct. 03 2012 11:35 AM
Unheard from WNYC

How are all our problems the fault of the poor? How do the poor have enough power to ruin the country? Who wants to lounge around being poor and miserable? Being poor is not fun. The idea that the poor are bringing us down is a joke.

Oct. 03 2012 11:34 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Eh, yo, brooklynmom78: Those who really know about intellect know that there is so much we don't know about it, including any role "innateness" may play...
You're way off on this one. Nevertheless, I know it's not innate to you; I know you just lack information and are not necessarily doomed to this state of...unawareness.

Oct. 03 2012 11:33 AM
LeoInNYC from NYC

We have to make the education system much, much more "fault tolerant" and geared toward lifelong learning. The model now takes the least mature members of our society, children, and then says, "you have ONE shot at excelling at a bunch of abstract academic subjects." And if you don't succeed you are set up for a life of failure and poverty. This is not a good way to structure our education system if we are trying to minimize the chance of failure for people. In addition, in a world in which technology and the job market change rapidly, creating an assumption that education is something you engage in over a lifetime seems like a smart move anyway. And finally, that assumption will help with the rampant ageism that plagues our job market.

It's not gonna happen. As a society, we clearly have no problem with an economic system that traps millions in poverty as long as we are on the other side of that line.

But it'd be nice.

Oct. 03 2012 11:32 AM
David from NYC

A living wage yes.

But as long as firms are traded on Wall Street costs will always
be kept low low low...many firms now want to limit FTE.

This economy is totally "top down" always has and always will be

Oct. 03 2012 11:32 AM
RJ from prospect hts

One suggestion: A baseline minimum income for all--which Richard Nixon suggested--that is pegged to inflation and below which no one could drop. To fit the alleged moral underpinning of the U.S., no one should go without food, shelter, medical care, and a baseline minimum income would be a better system than the hodgepodge of programs that are used now.

Oct. 03 2012 11:32 AM

One way to help the very poor is to stop letting new people in. new unskilled workers lower salaries

Oct. 03 2012 11:31 AM

To the caller who proposed compulsory military service:

It sounds like a good idea, but it could only work if everyone in the country would be subject to the requirement. The caller made it sound like only people who couldn't find work would be required to go to the military. The military - as a volunteer force - its comprised of both people who can't find work and people who can (but want to serve).

Also, military training is expensive and would grow exponentially if our nation required compulsory service.

Oct. 03 2012 11:31 AM
Bill from Central New Jersey

I spent most of my youth using various federal and state programs because my father was a factory worker who died when I was 8 and my mother was mentally ill. I've been on Social Security, welfare and Medicaid. I have used public health clinics. I have been there.

I was lucky enough to get into college and finish. I worked for 35 years before I retired. I paid enough in taxes to pay back all the aid I got growing up and then some.

If you haven't been through that or something like that, you cannot know how the twists and turns of these mismatched programs can disrupt your life. Social Security was far and away the best program for retaining your dignity but it fell short of covering the cost of living, even in the cheap rent days of the 1960s.

I participated in the social programs during the prosperous 50s and 60s. I got the best of being poor, if there is such a concept. The poor now have to face much higher costs of housing and food and a much less understanding public.

I don't think we have a social safety net any more. If I were young and poor today, I don't think I would make it to college and to a middle-class life.

Oct. 03 2012 11:31 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Typical liberal claptrap. The poor and handicapped are VERY WELL BEING TAKEN CARE of by the government, myself included! Romney is right. We have to worry about reeducating and retooling the middle class. The poor are being well taken care of, and the wealthy have more than enough to take care of themselves, and give charity too.

I do agree with compulsory military service to give young people the basic skills of work, like getting up early and being responsible for themselves. And some vocational skills possibly as well.

Oct. 03 2012 11:27 AM
Bea Dewing from Manhattan

High school should include programs for getting young people to work as soon as possible. Technical education is key and should be top quality, relevant to today's economy and available to all. Corporations must step up with work-study and paid training programs. This should be a requirement for government contracts, tax breaks and other incentives.

Oct. 03 2012 11:26 AM
Marc from Brooklyn

For better than three decades we've been hearing that not having a high school diploma puts one at a severe disadvantage. For better than three decades we've been hearing how our students are falling more and more behind their counterparts from abroad. Yet, for better than three decades, we done virtually nothing to improve our public schools. For better than three decades the teachers' unions have fought every attempt to improve our public schools' performance to a near standstill. Where our poor are is where we've lead them -- and where they've lead themselves. When parents don't check their kids' homework, they're choosing failure. When one chooses to watch American Idol rather than to read a book, one is choosing failure. When one votes robotically for whomever the UFT endorses, one is choosing failure.

And this has been crystal clear for three decades, as well.

Oct. 03 2012 11:25 AM
John A from NOLA

'rising tide lifts all boats'
. . .
"What's that?
What's that?
The poor don't have boats?

Oct. 03 2012 11:25 AM
Terry B.

Westchester County has dealt a terrible blow to the working poor by freezing access to childcare subsidies. These parents now face the impossible choice between not being able to work and placing their children in substandard care.

Oct. 03 2012 11:25 AM
fuva from harlemworld

There are signs that this campaign will underscore the critical importance of information in addressing this nation's problems. E.g., Clinton's convention speech...In fact, a critical component in the fight against problem is information: The poor need to better undertsand why they're poor and its effects. UNDERSTANDING poverty will make them less vulnerable to it. Citizens across strata need to better understand the whys, hows and effects of monetary wealth.

Oct. 03 2012 11:24 AM

I don't believe that you can have this discussion without adressing ALL of the reasons why people are poor. Although there are definitely exceptions, poverty is generally associated with low levels of education, and much of this is due to innate differences in intelligence between individuals (regardless of race, cultural influences, and other factors). Studies have shown that more intelligent people live longer, enjoy better health, achieve higher education levels (even regardless of income levels.) However, this is not "pc" to talk about. I think there should be some acknowledgement that poverty cannot be entirely eliminated due to these factors.

Oct. 03 2012 11:24 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

You know, y'all keep referring to lower middle class and very poor, but I don't think anyone understands the VERY POOR unless you see the people who are literally homeless and out on the streets. No one has made any inroads into solving the problem of the VERY POOR until every single one of the homeless people out on the streets today is living in a home with electricity, regular meals, regular medical care, and something to do - a reason to get up in the morning other than the body's normal circadian rhythm. Maybe if Mitt Romney would spend a week walking around New York City and seeing what I see, day after day, he might realize how serious and pervasive this problem is. It goes well beyond mere education needed to get a good job. These homeless people are seriously ill, sometimes have serious psychological issues, and will continue to be unable to work - with or without education - until they once again have an opportunity to live like human beings.

Oct. 03 2012 11:24 AM
Chris from Queens

We need a recalculation of poverty levels on a federal and state levels. We still look at the poor according to a 1960's formula that no longer reflects the costs of housing, healthcare, childcare, education, and transportation. It's turning a blind eye to the realities of being poor in today's world

Oct. 03 2012 11:22 AM
Elaine Langer from Bronx, NY

The education gap seems to be the heart of the issue. How many companies have job openings which they cannot fill, since there are not enough people qualified applying.

In High School, maybe we need vocational options, with a close relationship with what do employers want

Oct. 03 2012 11:20 AM
Mary from nyc

So what do the families with lesser means do.. if you keep saying "have no skills" when the cost of higher education keeps rising, with increased student debt? Seems like you throw out answers without addressing the real issues.

Oct. 03 2012 11:19 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Gingrich's "trampoline" comment quite vividly and succinctly illustrated the problem with poverty programs...If only his wit was used for good and not evil...

Oct. 03 2012 11:19 AM
Amy from Manhattan

The context of Mitt Romney's remarks (& by the way, he didn't say he didn't care about the very poor, he said he wasn't concerned about them) just reinforces the perception that's he's disconnected from the reality poor people deal with: 1st, he actually thinks the safety net is "ample," when it's not even adequate; 2nd, *if* there are holes in it he'll fix them? if he weren't out of touch, he'd know there are holes in the safety net, & if he doesn't even know if there are holes, how can he know how to fix them?

Oct. 03 2012 11:18 AM

What about the intellectually poor and the non-thinking? What can we do to provide those people with the tools and resources they need to exercise critical analysis and independent thoughts instead of letting the media and politicians (liberal and conservative) tell them what to think making them more dependent on an unsustainable system?

Oct. 03 2012 11:15 AM
DarkSymbolist from NYC!

Hearing it in context only proves his indifference. And then when you consider the fact that he and his Ayn Randian cult party want to DESTROY the safety net, the edited " I'm not concerned about the poor" is 100% accurate anyway.

Oct. 03 2012 11:15 AM
Howard M from Westchester NY

We need to help the working poor stay off of Welfare. In NYS Counties have been lowering the eligibility level for childcare. In Westchester, the second richest county in the state, DSS has just closed access to childcare to working poor families. These families need support not handouts

Oct. 03 2012 11:13 AM
Rich P

The context essentially affirms Romney's indifference toward the poor....Wait, did Romany just say Democrat party???

Oct. 03 2012 11:11 AM
Christine from Yorktown

Mark: Churches (not only Catholic but others) do much good in ways that the government could certainly not replace. Their members contribute time, money in some cases devoting their lives to charity. The government, insisting that they pay for birth control goes against Catholic church teachings, the base of their beliefs. I don't think it's only Catholics by the way. The Govt. mandating that Catholic employers must pay for this is a violation of church and state separation.
The crux of this is: all life, including at conception is not to be violated. You can say that's bunk if you want. If a member uses contraceptives, that's up to them, but you wont' find the Church agreeing to pay for it. And their not paying for it doesn't stop anyone from having access. How much does a box of condoms cost? Isn't Planned Pregnancy handing out free contraceptives to anyone who asks?

Oct. 03 2012 11:11 AM
RJ from prospect hts

Workfare also denied these workers--yes, workers--replacing unionized workers and being unprotected by labor law.

Oct. 03 2012 11:09 AM
RJ from prospect hts

The ballyhooing about "welfare reform" as a success is baffling to me. It set a lifetime limit of 5 years on people's ability to get help, and depended on so-called "welfare to work." This led to: "workfare," where people work for their benefits but are not considered workers, and therefore women were not covered by sexual harassment laws (as litigated); people being put into low-level, low-skill, low-wage jobs that are the first to be eliminated when the disaster of any "dip" in the economy--or disaster, as in 2007--happens. I think welfare reform has been a disaster, and Bill Clinton's charm is protecting him from being held to account.

Oct. 03 2012 11:07 AM

If the church cares so much about the poor then why do they oppose birth control? Consider that high birthrate is one of the oppressors of the poor. Maybe because they want more and more dependent people coming to them for handouts? It's so hypocritical to push for anti-worker policies 364 days a year and then act like handing out some crusty old coats in December makes up for it.

Oct. 03 2012 10:23 AM
Ed from Larchmont

If the HHS mandate stands as is, and the Catholic Church can't continue to provide services (food pantries, health care services, AIDS hospices, adoption services, etc.) because it can't comply with the HHS restrictions, poor people will lose because the government won't be able to afford to take their place at all.

And if the economy collapses under the debt, there will be no money for any safety net.

Oct. 03 2012 08:02 AM
Kathleen E LP V from Long Branch, NJ

My Questions:
How much, in dollars & percentages, of our National Budget actually goes to organizations that give aid the poor, and how much of it goes to subsidize various Corporations & industries? & have the proportions to each changed since 2008?

Seems to me, that the Corporations get a much bigger chunk of our National pie.
Corporate Gov't subsidizes & Tax Credits: Oil, Gas, & Nuclear Co's; Airlines; Financial Sector; Phone & Telecom; & Agriculture to name a few. Let's not forget those "Farmers" who buy farms primarily to live on & never intend to make their income from an actual working farm; or the Defense arena, the "military industrial complex" Ike warned about.
J Q Public subsidies & Tax Credit: Education, Health care, Personal Mortgages, Highways & Bridges, Unemployment or Underemployment. These seem more like "investments" in our society, rather than gifts like Corporate subsidies seem to be, because the average person can't generate the net profits that these Companies do.

Oct. 02 2012 01:47 PM

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