Poverty and the Social Safety Net

Monday, March 24, 2014

For this week’s installment of our series Strapped: A Look at Poverty in America, we discuss the social safety net—welfare, food stamps, unemployment, Medicaid, and other federal programs designed to help people living in poverty. Olivia Golden, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and Research Associate in the Population Studies Center at the History Department of the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, discuss the impact these programs have on poverty and the debates over funding and support for them.

A single mother of two children who earns less than $19,000 would most likely qualify for food stamps, health insurance coverage for her children, and she'll probably qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as unemployment insurance if she were to lose her job. One new program that affects parents like that single mother is the Affordable Care Act, which expands coverage under Medicaid to adults. Golden explained that "her ability to get that coverage will depend on what state she lives in.” She would not qualify for welfare, although she might qualify for some child care programs, which is a major but often unmet need for working parents.

“One of the things people often miss is how much of the safety net is about working people,” Golden said. “Very many people in poverty are working and trying to raise children at the same time, and while our safety net has gotten better at addressing that in some ways, there are still very big challenges very much posed by the nature of low-wage work.”

The notions of the Welfare Queen and of unemployed poor people taking advantage of federal programs like welfare and food stamps are hard to shake in our society, but they don’t represent a real picture of who relies on these safety net programs and why. Golden said, “While it is absolutely true that for a whole set of reasons, in terms of access to education and to good jobs, black and Latino families bear the burden, disproportionately, of low-wage work and of intermittent work, the extent of work among low-income people, I think, is not widely understood.”

Some of the programs that make up the safety net are subject to changes in funding from year to year, due to economic and political reasons. “They are very sensitive to politics and to political mood and to political swings,” Katz said. “Just as we’re seeing now with the SNAP program, how harsh the cuts to that program are—not because the program is ineffective, not because we can’t afford it, but simply because some of our legislators feel that poor people shouldn’t get so much food assistance.”

Katz said that how there are fundamental questions at the heart of how we address poverty. “It’s essentially a moral question. What are the limits to our obligations to each other? What do we owe each other as members of communities, as citizens, as a nation?” He said, “And people answer those questions in very different ways.”


Michael Katz and Olivia Golden

Comments [13]

Mark from New Jersey

I would like to respectfully suggest that you invite a panel of inner-city high school students to one segment of this series, and ask them the same questions you asked your guests today. I believe the entire debate about poverty, the poor, and what anyone is/not supposed to do about it is entirely missing the single most salient fact: the "poor" are not as poor as academics, public-policy mandarins, and activists think they are. This is because most (sic) inner city poor will work - sometimes for their entire adult life - in the unreported economy. This enormous reality is utterly missing in the "studies," "evidence," and "research" on which your guests based their insights and recommendations. Hearing from a group of young adults from a place like Newark might be anecdotal; but that is no less methodologically rigorous than the abstractions our experts use. One guy's view ...

Mar. 24 2014 04:51 PM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

jgarbuz from Queens, I guess you never understood the rise of Fascism and the blood bath Europe went through in the 20th century.
Unfortunately from your view it is all about hating Jews rather then mass social injustice that went through Europe after the slaughters of WWI that had something do to with the rise Fascist and Communist dictatorships.

Mar. 24 2014 01:57 PM
BK from Hoboken

The numbers of children living at or near the poverty level is so disheartening. Why don't more people better assess their life, their finances, their potential child care, before bringing more children into this world?

Mar. 24 2014 01:45 PM
Dana from Brooklyn

I'd love to know what the guests think about European safety net systems and whether we should adopt any on the US. In particular, subsidizing wages to prevent layoffs in recessions.

Mar. 24 2014 01:42 PM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

The Republican elites in the south and southwest states rather spend enormous money on prisons then on economic development, a healthy work force and social progress. The American myths of opportunity are simply lies and fraudulent at this historic moment. Societies with large numbers of poor pay and pay dearly.

Mar. 24 2014 01:42 PM
oscar from ny

Funny how I work mad hard for nothing and I pay so much for a gamble or an insurance?...and than I see other ppl who don't work and live in a bigger place than me even with elevators and wait for a check to buy drugs and food..most of these also have places were they get treated for drug or other offences free food and they can even have sex in the premise this all played by tax money ...there is some ppl who are born with bad luck and one of them for I have not ever received a dime from these trillionare government or fed...and I'm betting that when I finish my 35 more years of work probably some other country tumbles this one and all my efforts would have been for nothing...I just work and pray for assistance from the god to give me some good luck because trusting these hungry devils will take my life

Mar. 24 2014 01:41 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Children should be out choppin' cotton or cleaning chimneys! What is all this "po' children" business? Children used to go out and bring back food into the ghettos in WWII. They used to shine shooes! Children are used as rock throwers and suicide bombers in some parts of the world! American children are too spoiled! That's the problem. Children used to learn how to work at age 7 or 8. Now they don't even know how to work at age 35!

Mar. 24 2014 01:41 PM
James Nadeau from Brooklyn

SocSec really is NOT an 'entitlement' for two reasons: 1-- you pay in and your level of "support" has to do with how much you pay in. 2--You must have recently paid in for 10 consecutive fiscal quarters or you will not be eligible for most of what SS "offers".

Mar. 24 2014 01:41 PM
Christine from Westchester

To Big Guy: I think you paint with an amazingly broad brush. In both the rich and poor categories everyone is not the same. Everyone who is "rich" is not running over jaywalkers and getting off scott free. Some of them work very hard for the wealth they posess. And for the long suffering poor: yes many look endlessly for work, but i've seen plenty just happy to be in "free" housing collecting welfare and into their third generation of doing so with no plans to look for work. Not sure where you hang out...

Mar. 24 2014 01:38 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The peasants are rising again!

Mar. 24 2014 01:36 PM
BigGuy from Forest Hills


Our country suffers far more from the lawlessness of the undeserving Rich than we suffer from the misbehavior of the undeserving Poor. The undeserving rich are rarely punished for breaking the law. Sober people driving luxury cars who kill a jaywalker are rarely charged with any crime at all. The investment bankers and young attorneys drinking and eating hearty at steakhouses throughout midtown and downtown NYC on Thursday nights have far more pills and drugs in their pockets and briefcases than any junior high school students in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yet young men exiting steakhouses are very rarely stopped and frisked for suspicion of carrying drugs, even though at least a quarter of them are carrying.

The costs to our society of all the street crimes in all our cities added up altogether is far less than the cost of the poor public policies perpetrated by our political leaders beholden to their wealthy backers. The undeserving Rich do indeed get away with murder, every day, when they kill a jaywalker. The undeserving Poor are sometimes jailed because they have asked for help. They have begged every one they saw for a job. They are punished for their persistence by being jailed for vagrancy.

In contrast, the defenders of the undeserving Rich are not jailed; they are rewarded. Right wing political and economic pundits have been consistently WRONG about the direction of our economy and proper fiscal policy for more than five years. They have been persistent and WRONG. They have been rewarded by the very wealthy whose egregious behavior they defend by receiving sinecures at the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Economics and Political Science departments of state universities like George Mason University and William and Mary in Virginia.

Mar. 24 2014 01:30 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

It has to be understood that historically, poverty has been the norm, and "middle class" being the abnormal and short lived phenomenon. We had a middle class after WWI in the 1920s, and it dissolved, and then again after WWII for a few decades until it collapsed around 2008. Poverty is the default condition; living above poverty is historically a very unique and short lived period.

So poverty is normal. Middle class is abnormal. WE are returning to economic normality.

Mar. 24 2014 01:20 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Well, the original "safety net" used to be called "the family." And most people in most countries lived on the land, on farms, in huts and could only rely on each other. Children were the "safety net." They were farm hands and they took care of their parents and grandparents who usually died fairly young in most cases compared to today, of hard work and ailments. Charity and the Church tried to take care of the disabled to an extent.

The beginning of major government involvement in using tax revenues to directly help families begins with the industrial revolution,as more people go from the land to factories and then to offices. They became wage workers. It was Prussia which created the first "social security" or old age govenment pension in 1885. For the US it took another 50 years till social security came into being.

But the more the government began to send out checks, the more the family began to dissolve as there was less need to depend on blood kin for support. And this continues to deepen.

Mar. 24 2014 01:16 PM

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