Poverty and the Social Safety Net

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.”