Magenta Nation – Fakchex


America’s social safety net is one of the single largest expenditures the government must pay for every year. Critics regularly target it as a way to reduce government spending. So, what exactly is America’s social safety net, and do we really need it?

The Safety Net Defined

The social safety net includes several federal programs designed to support people in poverty, people with disabilities, children, and seniors. Collectively these programs are commonly referred to as welfare, but that connotation can be misleading. All these programs have requirements for eligibility and qualification, which can vary between states—as do the benefits they provide.

Sometimes people include unemployment insurance as a “welfare” benefit. These are payments made to people who lose their jobs for a temporary period of time, and the amount can vary by state. They are administered by the state, and funded by employers. Research during the recent labor shortage after the pandemic ended documented that unemployment benefits and pandemic aid did not keep people out of the work force.

Back to the safety net. These programs are intended to help people in need maintain a minimum standard of living until they can support themselves independently.  Some programs, such as Supplemental Security Income and the Earned Income Tax Credit, provide direct financial support to seniors, people with disabilities, or working families too poor to pay income taxes. Other initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Child Nutrition, and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) help poor families, children, and pregnant women acquire food to avoid hunger. Medicaid and Child Care allow low-income Americans to access healthcare coverage and provide medical care and after-school programs for students. Other programs provide access to affordable housing and job and career training.

Who Receives These Subsidies?

  • Almost half – 49% – of American children participated in a safety net program in 2019, with just over half of those participating in multiple programs. One in seven children in the U.S. lived at or below the poverty line that year.
  • An estimated 4.9 million single mothers with children receive social safety net benefits in 2020. The U.S. stands out among its peer nations as one with the lowest level of spending per child for early childhood care.
  • Almost 70% of adults receiving benefits from Medicaid and SNAP in 2019 were working full time, yet still had to rely on these social safety programs for health care and help buying food.
  • 30.4% of people receiving social safety benefits in 2011 had some form of disability.
  • An estimated 17% of older adults (age 65 and up) participated in social safety net programs in 2019—however, only 47% of the people in that demographic who were living below 200% of the federal poverty line participated in programs.

To summarize who is commonly getting this support: half of them are children; 30 percent are disabled; more than 10% are elderly; some are mothers of young children; and some are people working full-time that do not make enough money to have basic food and housing.

Concerns about the Safety Net

  • It encourages people to be lazy and not work. From the statistics above, it’s apparent that the vast majority of people receiving these benefits face real obstacles to work. They are children, disabled, elderly, women who can’t get childcare to enable them to work, and people who are already working but not making enough to live on.
  • These programs are rife with fraud and abuse, allowing people to live well while not working. The payments are subsistence level and don’t support a comfortable standard of living. Also, the welfare system has checks and balances that prevent fraud. Fraud will exist in any system, but statistics show that only about 15 percent of welfare payments were made fraudulently (roughly $161 billion) in 2021, compared with an estimated $860 billion in corporate fraud in business. In 2018, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that only 14 of every 10,000 households with a recipient of SNAP included someone who was found to have committed fraud. For another comparison: the CRS also found for every $10,000 paid in benefits for SNAP, $11 was overpaid because of fraud by recipients, whereas the IRS estimated that $1 in every $6 owed in federal taxes isn’t paid due to fraud or tax evasion.
  • It should not be necessary in America. Everyone who wants to can work hard and pull themselves up from poverty. That has always been the American dream and many people have done so. However, it should also be recognized that there are barriers that make this difficult for some people – structural racism, for example, that keeps people from getting the best educational opportunities, the better jobs, and even bars them from better housing and health care.
  • It is wasting money on people who are in this country illegally. Laws prohibit non-qualified or illegal immigrants from participating in most social safety net programs. Individual states may expand access to certain programs and services to different immigration status groups, but under federal law access to safety net services is largely prohibited.

What’s the Real Problem?

The real concern about the safety net should be that there are so many people who need it. America has the largest economy in the world. Why are so many of its citizens hungry, homeless, and in need of health care, including many who are working full-time?

  • One reason is the shift of wealth in America that has occurred over the last 40 years. Much more of the country’s wealth is now in the hands of rich people, while the middle class and lower class have less. Wealthy people and corporations pay far less in taxes than they used to, with the average American shouldering more of the burden. If this inequity is corrected, the well-being of the average American – including those close to or at the poverty line – will improve. (We need a source for this)
  • Another is structural racism in education, health care, housing and jobs. As these situations are corrected, it will be easier for individuals and families to climb out of poverty. In 2021, 9.5% of America’s white population lived in poverty: simultaneously, 21.7% of the black population, 17.6% of Hispanics, and 25.9% of the Native American population were living in poverty as well.
  • Third, why should people who work full-time not make enough to support themselves? This is a mystery that should be investigated.
  • Finally, we can look more closely at how people are trained and prepared to enter the workforce. A part of the social safety net should focus on training people for employment and for jobs through which they can support themselves. This should extend to young people entering the job market as well. Perhaps the idea of a national service or a national volunteer program would be a solution to improve the employability of the American workforce overall.

Regardless of improvements that can be made, we know that some Americans will always need help – for example, the 30% of people getting financial support who are disabled and cannot work. As a humanitarian society, we have a commitment to take care of people who cannot help themselves. However, there are a number of legitimate questions that can be explored to make these financial assistance programs more effective.

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