A New Safety Net Paradigm and Opportunity Roadmap
The U.S. safety net needs a paradigm shift. Our low-income, work-capable neighbors deserve to move out of dependency on government, find hope and lasting self-sufficiency through community and work, and flourish. The status quo where poor Americans suffer through a cycle of intergenerational poverty with little hope of escape is unacceptable.
This plan is a toolkit for policymakers: An explanation of how the safety net is failing, the path forward, and practical policy options that state leaders can act on now to advance comprehensive and transformative safety-net reform. These reforms will empower vulnerable low-income citizens to move from government dependence to the dignity of work and connection to community for a flourishing life.
Flourishing and dignified individuals
Thriving and successful families
Healthy and supportive communities
Effective educational and training options
Robust economy and opportunities
This requires a visionary new anti-poverty framework. Our three core institutions—government, civil society, and the economy—must work together to holistically empower low-income citizens to move above government dependency and find true opportunity.
A Functional and Temporary Safety Net (Government)
In December 2019, despite arguably the strongest economy in American history, more than 70.6 million Americans participated in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program,1Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Medicaid and Chip Enrollment Trends Snapshot through June 2020,” n.d., https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/national-medicaid-chip-program-information/downloads/june-medicaid-chip-enrollment-trend-snapshot.pdf. and 37.2 million people were on food stamps.2Food and Nutrition Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, “SNAP Data Tables: National View Summary,” accessed December 3, 2021, https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/resource-files/34SNAPmonthly-11.pdf. Nearly 7 million prime-working-age males, ages 25-54, were out of the workforce. This number increased by more than 1 million by the end of 2020.3U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Series Id LNU05000061. In 2019, Georgia had 1,249,000 residents in poverty, Louisiana had 816,000, and Texas had 3,174,000.4 U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1960 to 2021 Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASEC), Historical Poverty Tables: People and Families – 1959 to 2020, Table 21: Number of Poor and Poverty Rate by State: 1980 to 2020, last revised October 8, 2021, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-people.html. Those numbers soared due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated business shutdowns by governments and remain elevated from policies out of Washington hindering job creation and the return to work.
In 2020, poverty rankings placed Louisiana fourth highest in the nation with 15.4% of its citizens living in poverty. Texas placed eighth with 14.0%, and Georgia fourteenth with 13.2% (excluding Washington, D.C.).5U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1960 to 2021 Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASEC), Historical Poverty Tables: People and Families – 1959 to 2020, Table 19: Percent of People in Poverty by State: 2018, 2019, and 2020, last revised October 8, 2021, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-people.html. Note that the rankings changed markedly from 2019 where Louisiana ranked 2nd with 17.9% in poverty, Georgia ranked 13th with 12.1% in poverty, and Texas ranked 15th with 11.1% in poverty.
Yet poverty is not a story that can just be told in numbers. Our current safety-net programs are measured by how many checks go out the door and how many citizens rely on them. If we continue down this path, we will never reach the real goal: human flourishing.
Our safety-net system is overly complex and not user friendly. This chart illustrates the complexity of Georgia’s system as an example. In fact, to call the current safety-net system a “system” is misleading. It is an irrational labyrinth of more than 80 programs that are at best poorly coordinated. Multiple legislative committees at the federal and state levels create and guide the various programs. Governmental agencies at the federal, state, and local levels then administer them with varying—and even conflicting—eligibility rules and payments distributed by an assortment of technical mechanisms.
The system creates obstacles to our low-income neighbors’ desire to flourish. It is riddled with government-created disincentives to work, like welfare cliffs and marriage penalties, which impede both individual progress and family formation. Benefits should never pay more than work. The current safety-net system traps our neighbors in poverty’s revolving door.
Of course, the poorly functioning system is also expensive, necessitating higher taxes, less spending elsewhere, or more debt pushed onto future generations. But the real loss is human potential. If state policies create a permanent lower-income class dependent on government, the lives of those in this class are less fulfilled, and society loses their contribution.
The people on safety-net programs deserve better. An effective anti-poverty system can use every taxpayer dollar to achieve measurable outcomes of success for those most in need. States can streamline and consolidate. They can connect the vulnerable to effective community partners to unlock lasting opportunity. The safety-net system can provide a hand up, not just a handout.
Strong Families and Communities (Civil Society)
Employment, education, and family formation are a near-guarantor of a lifetime of financial security and, more important, personal dignity.Meaningful safety-net reform must also strengthen families and communities—key components of civil society—to help those in need. These safety-net policies should not undermine institutions of civil society, as they have done over the decades, but allow them to strengthen and thrive. We contend that without connecting with civil society, safety-net programs will never succeed. As with the status quo, the pervasiveness of poverty will never be solved.
The modern American safety-net system will always assist those in need. But it must do more by ensuring that vulnerable, work-capable citizens have an avenue to independence. In their seminal essay, To Empower People,6Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, 1996), https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/-to-empower-people_140638228440.pdf. Berger and Neuhaus argued that it is through civil society, as expressed in families and communities, that a social safety net is truly effective at empowering those in need to find self-sufficiency.
And yet, our safety-net system has weakened civil society in our impoverished neighborhoods by denying low-income children and adults the connections to the civil society they need.7See, for example, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Social Poverty: Low-Income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties (New York: NYU Press, 2019), http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv12fw6dg and William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997). Research strongly indicates that marriage and strong families are an essential escape route out of poverty.8See, for example, Robert Rector, Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty(Heritage Foundation, 2010), https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/marriage-americas-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty-0; AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity, Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution, 2015), https://www.brookings.edu/research/facts-on-poverty-and-opportunity-that-progressives-and-conservatives-can-agree-on/; Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences (Institute for American Values, 2011), http://nationalmarriageproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WMM_summary.pdf; and Gretchen Livingston, The Changing Profile of Unmarried Parents (Pew Research Center, April 25, 2018), https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/04/25/the-changing-profile-of-unmarried-parents/. But the safety-net system is riddled with counterproductive marriage penalties that penalize individuals financially for marrying, earning income, and raising their children together. By undermining civil society and making dysfunctional social and family structures worse, the safety-net system contributes to intergenerational poverty that harms many individuals touched by it, especially the most vulnerable children who are denied the full-scale benefits and social organization of civil society, which, in turn, perpetuates impoverished mindsets and poverty itself.
State policymakers must incorporate civil society into safety-net programs if they want to make headway in solving poverty. This will require partnering with civil and community groups to strengthen civil institutions. These partners can better develop paths for people to overcome their unique challenges. The key is to measure and build on what works well to pull people out of government dependency and into self-sufficiency through work.
Prosperous and Inclusive Opportunities (Economy)
A reformed safety-net system is a key component to reducing poverty and helping people flourish. However, it must be accompanied by an inclusive economy that opens new opportunities for people to pursue happiness and achieve dignity, self-sufficiency, and prosperity.
Too many overlook and deny the dignity that work provides. When people are engaged in work and are rewarded for using their talents, they are able to provide for their families and contribute to their communities. Academic research has associated work with better familial relationships, more civic engagement, better mental health, less substance abuse, better physical health, longer life expectancy, self-esteem, and greater satisfaction with one’s life.9Erik Randolph, “Nonfinancial Impact from Nonwork: Review of Research-Based Evidence” (working paper cosponsored by the Secretaries’ Innovation Group and the Georgia Center for Opportunity, November 19, 2021), http://nebula.wsimg.com/3553e6951c7dbbd8e8109e0a4c60842f?AccessKeyId=EEB98E648E3097DCA50D&disposition=0&alloworigin=1. The bottom line: No one belongs on the sidelines.
At a societal level, the current system wastes the opportunity to bring work-capable, vulnerable people off the sidelines and into the work, training, and education essential to our economy. The lost production and waste of unique talents leads to a poorer society. Remaining on the sidelines also increases the cost of government, requiring higher taxes, less spending elsewhere, or more debt that will push the cost onto future generations. If this debt is then monetized by the Federal Reserve, it can support increased money supply thereby raising inflation and the cost of living. Finally, a larger welfare state and smaller private sector leave even fewer economic opportunities for the individuals who need them most.
The primary goal is gainful employment. The economic advantages of employment are easy to see—having financial resources to take care of basic needs, saving for emergencies, securing a financial future, and leaving a legacy for kids and grandkids.
All people need a prosperous, inclusive economy with abundant opportunities and barriers removed to prosper and gain financial independence. States can create better workforce training pathways and remove obstacles to starting a job for those exiting the safety-net system or who have been formerly incarcerated.
State Policymakers Can Lead
State policymakers have the power to unleash more economic freedom and prosperity, most often by removing government barriers. While the federal government overtook, created, and continues to largely fund safety-net programs, states administer most of the programs. They also spend significant sums of their tax revenue on these programs.
It is true: Long-term changes require federal cooperation. But we don’t have to wait on the federal government to initiate change, nor can we afford to. State policymakers can take the lead now to transform their safety nets to serve, support, and empower recipients while building a grassroots movement for federal reform, as they did in the 1990s. We cannot continue to relinquish our responsibilities to our fellow citizens.