Rethinking America’s Social Safety Net

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Above Photo: Public school education provides just one necessary link in a strong social safety net. From

It may be time to re-conceptualize our social safety net.

Most of the people who refer to a social safety net use the term as shorthand for a variety of so-called “welfare” programs, everything from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way — and focusing, as many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans — facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

After all, these politicos imply, why should the prudent and solvent among us have our hard-earned monies taxed to support “those people”?

Public school education provides just one necessary link in a strong social safety net.

It’s easy to see the persistent attacks on income-supports for disadvantaged folks as both dishonest and mean-spirited, and most efforts to rebut them tend to revolve around the realities of social supports: the percentages of recipients who are children, elderly, and disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week.

I want to suggest that we may be missing the forest for the trees.

A “social safety net,” properly conceived, is the web of institutions and services that benefit all members of a given society while building bonds of community and cross-cultural connection. In this broader understanding, the safety net includes public education, public parks, public transportation and other services and amenities available to and used by citizens of all backgrounds and income categories.

Public education is a prime example. Even granting the challenges — the disproportionate resources available to schools serving richer and poorer neighborhoods, the barriers to learning created by poverty — public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty. Public schools, as Benjamin Barber has written, are constitutive of a public.

Common schools create common cultures, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that attacks on public education have been at least partially motivated by that reality. While supporters of charter schools and voucher programs have promoted them as ways of allowing poor children to escape failing schools, the data suggests that most children — including poor children — are better served by schools that remain part of America’s real social safety net.

This point was recently underscored by Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education — a board not noted for progressive understandings of the role of education. After reviewing data about outcomes achieved by traditional public schools and those operating via various “privatization” programs, he concluded:

When you hear the unending and unsubstantiated rhetoric about “failing public schools” from those that support vouchers or other “competitive” school models, it is important to have the facts. ISDs aren’t perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out and get more kids career and college ready than their politically connected competitors. Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.

Recognition that “these lives matter” is the hallmark of a society with a capacious understanding of citizenship — both in the sense of who counts as a citizen, and what constitutes the mutual obligations of citizens to one another.

The actual social safety net is not the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in a society. The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.

Defining the social safety net that way allows us to see that the portion of our taxes used to assist needy fellow-citizens isn’t “forced charity.” It’s our membership dues.

  • Matthew Borenstein

    They’re not so-called welfare programs = The single sentence preamble of the US Constitution states six reasons for the Constitution – #5 = TO PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE. Disparaging welfare is disparaging the Constitution.

  • Jon


    “Public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty.” is duplicated in the article.

  • DHFabian

    The meaning of a social safety net appears to be “in the eye of the beholder.” When people refer to “welfare,” we don’t know just what they’re talking about. Ignorance about US poverty, and programs that are intended to address this, is the norm.

    Before Reagan, MSM provide legitimate (if incomplete) information about social conditions. Before B. Clinton, we could rely on the media marketed to liberals to provide accurate information about poverty and poverty relief programs. Those days are gone. Actual welfare aid ended 20 years ago. TANF, a short-term, marginally subsidized job program, only for those with children. Liberal media specify that their concerns are only for the more fortunate, the working class. We’ve been utterly turning our backs on the truly poor all along. This is why the overall life expectancy of the US poor has already fallen below that of every developed nation.

    From there, we can say that the meaning of “welfare” was expanded and obscured to the point where we don’t know what people are talking about when they use this word. Are they referring to our former welfare aid programs, General Assistance and AFDC? Do they include Social Security recipients, and if so, do they only mean retirees, or the disabled as well? Food stamps? Health insurance? Public schools, libraries, police and fire departments? Who knows?

  • DHFabian

    What tools? A high school diploma is not a tool to escape poverty. It’s required just to get a dead-end, bottom wage job, and there simply aren’t jobs for all. The US shipped out a huge number of working class jobs since the 1980s. A college degree is necessary to have a chance. Very few can earn enough scholarships, and qualify for adequate loans, to have even a chance at college. On top of all this, we cut the rungs off the proverbial ladder out of poverty, effectively trapping the poor into permanent poverty.

    As for integrating children from different backgrounds, remember that a huge share of our schools are not in urban areas, making such integration nearly impossible. It would require an extensive system of busing students over long distances.The quality of schools depends on the tax base in the school district. Schools in low income areas have always been severely under-funded.

  • DHFabian

    The Constitution’s use of this word refers to the “general well-being” of the population. This is something different from our former welfare aid programs. I think the bottom line is that we have been taught to regard our poor — those who are not currently needed by employers — as mere “surplus population.” They are dispensable, so we have decided not to “waste” money on their survival.

  • Jon

    Fabian,i was merely quoting the duplicated sentence from the article–an editing matter, not my assertion.

  • awfton

    The “change” began in earnest with the election of Reagan and the rise of trickle down economics. The “conservatives” somehow convinced the people and their congress critters that deregulation was “killing” American business. Reagan, in all his phony self righteousness, decried the terrible yoke that government put on those poor, down trodden millionaires and billionaires. Why, to the point that they just had to escape the horrible government mistreatment!!

    So, we allowed the deregulation of business and finance, and Wall Street promptly put the fire to the feet of our American manufacturing sector, and factory after factory were encouraged/forced to seek cheaper, less regulated labor markets around the world. Along with the factories went the well paying jobs, and start of the downward spiral of the lifestyles of the poor and blue collar workers. The rest is history.

    It is very important to trace back to when all of our current economic woes began. If you were born after 1980, then you did not live through the beginning of this deliberate demise of the American middle class that is is still being waged today with the election of pResident Trump and complete GOP control of wehat used to be the people’s governemt. The past few decades are sad time in American history. I call it the Dark Ages of America.