Why a safety net still matters

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow on the safety net–what it is, how it is threatened, and why it should matter to all of us.

If you’re in the Kansas City area, you should totally come.

Much of the presentation is evidence on what we know to be truths: the safety net has too many holes–and people are falling through; the short-term effects of the recession and the longer-term reshaping of our economy place increasing strains on the safety net; and the safety net’s reach is inadequate to cushion all those who really need it (because benefits are too meager and eligibility criteria too tight).

I trace the origins of these threats to the safety net to an overlapping set of ‘culprits’: tax cuts that erode the revenue foundation, the budget cuts we have chosen over other alternatives, the preference for privatization and block grants instead of entitlements, the recession and its exposure of the fragility of the safety net, and the overt attacks on the poor (more on that tomorrow!).

But the piece that I think may have the greatest impact on the audience is my contention that part of how we get to a better place is by celebrating the safety net and all that it does for our society.

Yes, we absolutely need to put the safety net in its proper ‘place’ in our economy. We need good jobs that pay well, and the safety net should be a place of refuge, not a way of life. No one grows up dreaming of the day when they can receive emergency food assistance.

But the safety net, when it’s structured appropriately and (critical point) funded adequately, really works.

That’s something that often gets lost in the rhetoric (from one side) about a ‘Food Stamp culture’ (what, in the world, that is, I do not know) and (from the practitioner side) complaints about the gaps and their failures.

But we cannot save that which we are always so busy complaining about.

So understanding, and, yes, celebrating, the role of the safety net is important. We know a lot more today about the impact of safety net programs, because of the Supplemental Poverty Measure. And we need to start sharing what we’ve learned.

  • Without government assistance programs, the poverty rate would have been nearly twice as high in 2010:  an estimated 28.6 percent, compared with the actual figure of 15.5 percent.  If the safety net hadn’t existed, another 40 million people would have been poor.
  • The number of young adults with private health coverage has risen by ~2.5 million because of the Affordable Care Act.
  • In 2009, the Kansas EITC returned more than $81 million to low-income Kansas taxpayers.
  • Despite increased poverty and unemployment, hunger did not increase during the recession, largely due to investments in SNAP.
  • Social Security lifts more than 20 million Americans out of poverty, including more than 128,000 seniors in Kansas and more than 1 million children nationwide.
  • Federal rental assistance programs lifted about 3 million families out of poverty in 2010.

We know, of course, that these data are only part of the equation, though. What are your stories about why the safety net matters, and what stories do you believe we need to tell, about why there should–really–be something to catch people when they inevitably fall?

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