Talking About Poverty (Part Four) - The Myth of the Safety Net

Welcome to part four of PLACE’s five-part series, Talking About Poverty. As our guide, we will be using the excellent series, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths from WNYC’s On the Media.

In our fourth part, we examine the myth of the safety net, which supposes that if any of our fellow Americans experience hard times, there are programs that, like a safety net, will catch them before they fall. We will also examine a recent quote from Speaker Paul Ryan in which he said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency.”

The corollary to the Myth of the Safety Net is that few of us need a safety net. Actually, the need is great, and the number of our neighbors living on the precipice is alarming.

Sixty-four percent of Americans don’t have enough money to cover a $1,000 expense should it arise. In 2014, half of American households surveyed said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency. Half.  

Between the ages of 25 and 60, nearly 40% of Americans will experience at least one year below the official poverty line. Yet, many leaders say that the safety net is too large and too luxurious, that we cannot afford it.

Take a look at GoFundMe, a site that allows people to help others in an emergency. You will see story after heartbreaking story of people who have suffered horrific fires, accidents and other tragedies. For them, there appears to be no other safety net than asking the internet for help.

What programs comprise our safety net? Let’s start with the most basic of human needs, water.

When attempts to slash the government budget in Flint, Michigan resulted in poisoning of the water supply, what safety net was in place? The answer is none. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 children were exposed to high levels of lead that will lead to long-term health consequences. Finally, after the crisis had dragged on for two years with no safety net in place, a judge finally ordered bottled water to be delivered. Recently, an investigation by Reuters has identified more than 3,300 areas with rates of childhood lead poisoning at least double those of Flint.

What about shelter? In 2017, a census-style count found 549,928 homeless people in America. And that number may be much higher, since the count did not include those people staying with a family member, a neighbor, or in their car. There are shelters, but almost all of them are private, not part of a public safety net.

The largest affordable housing program in America (Section 42) helps people who have the income to pay reduced rent. It is neither a program aimed at homelessness, nor is it a safety net. If you’re homeless in America, there’s nobody coming to help you.

How about the safety net for the sick? Even though the percentage of Americans without health insurance hit an all-time low in 2016, over twenty percent of Texans still had no coverage. While every other developed nation manages to provide health care for all its citizens, there is still no safety net for millions of sick Americans.

And then there is food. If you do not have anything to eat in America, there is a safety net. It’s called the SNAP program (often known as food stamps) and it helps the poorest Americans, mostly children, and people who are elderly, disabled, or temporarily unemployed. The number of Americans seeking help from this safety net program was over 45 million in 2016.

However, SNAP was able to help only 85% of eligible individuals in 2013. This year, President Trump’s “skinny budget” would slash the SNAP program by $150 billion over the next ten years, ending food assistance for millions of low-income families.

I wonder if anyone in the administration connected the moniker “skinny budget” with a 26% cut to the food stamps program. All safety net programs face severe cuts today under the “skinny budget.” Other safety net programs to be cut include, Children’s Health Insurance, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and—you get the picture.

Why are these social programs—underfunded to begin with—being cut further?

One reason is the perception that these programs do not work. The budget plan states, “Too many people are becoming trapped in the program with no way to get out.  At the same time, states simply do not have the flexibility or authority to improve the program and address this cycle of dependency.”

The reality is quite different.

Republican leaders have advocated that cutting benefits to poor people will motivate them to get a job and pull themselves up by their bootstraps (See Talking About Poverty Part 3), or put another way, the best way to help people is not to help people.

Pew, a nonpartisan organization, has analyzed the data and found:

  • For people of all ages, the official poverty rate in the US was 14.5%. That’s equivalent to 45.3 million people.

  • Without food stamps, the poverty rate would be 17.10% – another 8 million Americans would be living in poverty.

  • Without social security, the poverty rate for Americans 65 and older would be 52.67% instead of the current 14.6%.

  • Without tax credits like the federal earned income tax credit, poverty for children under 18 would be 22.8% instead of the official poverty rate of 19.9%.

In other words, the data show the opposite. Cutting safety net programs plunges more people into poverty. Helping people helps people. Not every time. We all know an example of someone who can’t seem to be helped. But those people are the exception. The lives of most poor people is a never-ending, fire-fighting crisis.

James Baldwin once wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Lower wage earners pay more for public transit because they can’t afford a monthly pass. They rely on old cars that tend to break down and cost more to fix. They pay more for car insurance because of where they live.

If you earn less, you’re less likely to eat healthy food because healthy food costs on average forty-five dollars more every month, and food costs more in poorer neighborhoods. You might not be able to afford the high fees for a bank account, and you cash your paycheck at places that take a huge cut. You also pay a higher percentage of your income in taxes than higher-income people. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

And we’re talking about adults. For kids, they are less likely to thrive when they suffer from poor nutrition, increased lead and environmental poisoning, growing up in stressful neighborhoods, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education.

The safety net has huge holes, too many to be a true net. The safety net is actually more of a ledge that some people might catch on the way down.

And it certainly isn’t a hammock. My brother-in-law, is profoundly developmentally disabled, He cannot take care of himself. He receives just over $1,100 per month in benefits (much of it from Social Security benefits when his father died) to pay for housing, food, clothing and transportation in Minnesota. I am certain that Speaker Ryan does not refer to him, or the one-in-six American children born with developmental disabilities. I am certain he is not referring to our elders, who have worked their entire adult lives and now are retired on a fixed income that forces them to live in poverty. I am certain he also does not refer to people suffering from mental illness, caring for sick or dying loved ones, or the sick themselves, or disabled veterans.

Who, then, is left to be lying in a hammock, lulled into a life of dependency?

PLACE is a nonpartisan organization. We do not support candidates or political parties. But we can and do speak out on issues. On this issue of our safety net, Speaker Ryan is incorrect. The safety net is a myth and the hammock is an offensive stereotype.

When we create programs to help destitute people—a true safety net—the economy wins, the health care system wins, the educational system wins, and we can lower our spending on all these programs. We all win. Because as Senator Paul Wellstone once said, “We all do better when we all do better.”

Part five of our series, Talking About Poverty, will discuss poverty and the media, the way America reports on poverty, and how it can shape your perceptions.  We hope you will continue to send us your thoughts.

To listen to On the Media’s excellent program on our safety net, click here.

Chris Velasco is Co-Founder and Executive Director of PLACE, a charity dedicated to a sustainable, just, and inspiring world.

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