“Safety Net” Semantics

by Jeffrey M. Jones
Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Much of the last century was mired in a never-ending struggle to win the “war on poverty,” as LBJ unconditionally declared in 1964. Whether or not one believes that poverty can truly be defeated, the idea itself remains noble. Who would oppose a society “where no child will go unfed and no youngster will go unschooled”?

The federal government’s efforts to usher in this Great Society took the form of numerous social welfare programs targeting hunger, joblessness, poor health, bad housing, and other social ills. Between the end of the Eisenhower presidency and the end of the sixties, the number of domestic social programs had expanded from 45 to 435. Taken together, these measures formed what is commonly termed the social “safety net”—income and aid to catch the least fortunate in their time of need and provide relief from the pains of poverty.

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 marked, in Bill Clinton’s words, the “end of welfare as we know it.” Although its provisions altered only a subset of the safety net programs—primarily cash assistance, food stamps, and work sup- port services—the legislation challenged the fundamental purpose of welfare as conceived by its original architects. Personal responsibility, opportunity, and work replaced government subsidy, need, and provision as the aim of welfare. That challenge has received new attention this year as Congress takes up the reauthorization of welfare reform. Ideas die hard and the purveyors of welfare as we knew it have returned to champion their old ideals.

The Long and Winding Road

Typically, critics and advocates of welfare reauthorization pen studies and attack one another’s methodology or conclusions in a frenzied attempt to influence policymakers on Capitol Hill. Lost in the debate over outcomes is the role that language plays in shaping our perception of the purpose of welfare. It is difficult to find critiques and commentaries on reauthorization that fail to mention the likely impact of legislation on the safety net, a term that over time has come to represent more than just the conglomeration of federal assistance programs for the poor. A review of its use in both scholarly and mainstream publications uncovers a deep-seated misconception of the role government should play in alleviating poverty.

The faint but growing cry, a warning to our national consciousness, is that the safety net is under attack: “The safety net has failed to adequately respond”; “safety nets for the worst-off families are being eroded”; “falling through the safety net”; “lost in the shadows are the families who slipped through the loosening safety net”; and so on. The net effect of such emotionally charged language is to create a sense of anxiety about the effectiveness of welfare reform in lifting the poor out of poverty. This point is illustrated by a recent New York Times story citing a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution: “the gradual disappearance of safety net programs [has] driven some of the country’s poorest families deeper into poverty.”

In an effort to document the shrinking safety net theory, reports have come out claiming to show that the downtrodden are in dire straits due to welfare reform, the economic recession, or both. A study of low-income single mothers asserts that the debate over reauthorization should “focus on fixing the holes in the safety net and ensuring that those who need help the most have access to public assistance.” Likewise, a study of black children in extreme poverty found that “a dwindling safety net for the worst-off families” led to a “deepening of poverty . . . in the wake of the 1996 welfare law.”

The empirical support for an eroding safety net is suspect at best (as will be discussed below); thus the continually used expression must have another explanation, one that has more to do with its ideological basis than with any wholesale abdication of responsibility for the poor. What safety net has come to mean, quite simply, is the preservation of a government-backed standard of living; the aim of welfare, under this conception, is income maintenance. Maybe these ideas began with Franklin Roosevelt’s call for “permanent relief from the bottom up” or with Lyndon Johnson’s demand for “an end to poverty.” Whatever the catalyst, the intellectual roots of pre-reform welfare lean toward circumstance and repression as the causes of poverty. Theoretically, these are external forces that a modern society can direct its resources to defeat—thus, the imagery of war.

Safety net programs were designed to lift the poor out of impoverishment by raising their income level and offsetting their expenses. Up until the early 1990s—when states began to experiment with their welfare programs following cautious federal approval—welfare was all about getting a monthly assistance check and having certain living expenses paid for or even provided by government agencies. Success under this system of provision depended largely on whether funding for the safety net programs remained constant or increased over the years. Welfare as we knew it succeeded in this regard: In 1965, some 1.5 percent of the gross national product (GNP) went to welfare programs; by 1993, welfare spending was more than 5 percent of GNP, or $324 billion.

The safety net is in “crisis” now precisely because welfare reform and the proposals for its reauthorization have capped federal expenditures on such programs as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) at $16.5 billion a year. There are no inflation adjustments and no cost-of-living increases—just a flat block grant to each state, regardless of increases in program costs or number of recipients. The lack of expansion in funding is interpreted as a dwindling safety net in relation to other government expenditures, and the requirement that new approaches or shifting priorities be funded through existing resources is seen as creeping erosion. The means to stop this erosion invariably depend on more money. For instance, an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press recently argued that “Congress should increase the child care supplements, and the welfare reauthorization bill should specifically direct more money to job training. Additionally, the states should offer wage supplements to women in minimum-wage jobs.” Failure to raise living standards provokes dire consequences. “If Congress continues to ignore the growing holes in the social safety net,” warns the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “welfare-to-work will become welfare-to-worse for thousands more children.”

Training for Life

Ideals are often difficult to translate into policy, and, regrettably, the vision of a Great Society became the defense of a meager ration. Pre-reform welfare was more concerned with standards of living than with standards of success. In the end, the safety net became a trap for millions of families: a net over rather than under the impoverished, preventing them from achieving or even desiring self-sufficiency. The passage of welfare reform in 1996 led to a new notion of the purpose of welfare, one that acknowledges the presence of injustice in poverty but points toward responsibility and character as the only effective remedies.

The change in purpose requires a critical stance toward how the term safety net has come to be used in the debate over welfare reauthorization. Thus, a redefinition of safety net may prove useful in articulating and advancing the goals of welfare reform. Consider how safety nets are used on a daily basis. They are primarily a tool for training. Trapeze artists, gymnasts, and high-wire acts come to mind when one thinks of safety nets. The net is used in practice to build skills and encourage risk taking—an apparatus that helps artists and athletes learn and grow. But when performance time comes, the safety net is removed. It is no longer needed. The trainees have gained the skills they need to complete their stunts successfully without the net. Relying on the safety net is a means to an end, not the end.

In much the same way, welfare reform has altered our understanding of a safety net for the poor. Welfare is now seen as a tool for training the impoverished, not a nest of dependence or a barrier to performance. The reforms focus on giving recipients the education, training, and support necessary to leave poverty behind. Thus, success is gauged by whether those on welfare learn and apply new skills to obtain meaningful employment, decent housing, and a good learning environment for their children. As with all training, we expect welfare recipients who have the benefit of instruction not to fall back down when difficulties emerge. The lessons already bought and paid for will serve to empower the poor first to address trying circumstances on their own. If used properly the social safety net will remain available to support the acquisition of additional skills down the road.

Welfare after reform is about giving people the tools to make a life for themselves, to set their own standard of living. In light of this new definition, it is important to determine whether the pre-reform conception of a dwindling safety net retains any legitimacy and whether welfare reform is living up to its newfound expectations.

From an empirical standpoint, most of the evidence suggests that there has been no decline in the value and availability of safety net programs. To the contrary, with federal funding holding constant at $16.5 billion dollars a year, the resources available to service existing clients have increased dramatically. This is due primarily to the decrease in the number of welfare recipients—from more than 12 million a month in 1996 to just under 5 million in September 2002. At the start of welfare reform, Washington was contributing an average of $1,340 to each recipient each year. Today that figure is $3,303, an increase of 146 percent. Surprisingly, advocates of welfare reform in Congress are not up in arms about the exploding funding for safety net programs. On the contrary, the House version of reauthorization seeks to maintain the current level of funding. The “safety net scare” is a big red herring.

The critical question—now more obvious when examined next to the hollowness of income maintenance—is whether welfare reform succeeded in training and equipping low-income families, thereby raising them out of poverty. Here, the evidence is hard to ignore. Studies from within and outside the government have documented steady gains over the past six years in reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, increasing employment, lowering out-of-wedlock births, and improving the lives of children. In particular, single mothers have experienced great success: Between 1996 and 2001 poverty declined 20 percent; cash income rose 21 percent since 1995; the average hourly wage in 2001 was $11.60 per hour; and the poverty rate of those who left welfare in 1996 fell by 50 percent in four years.

A report by the Manhattan Institute titled “Gaining Ground: Moving Up” found that “Welfare reform was the largest single factor responsible for the rise in single mothers’ work participation, accounting for more than 40 percent of the increase between mid-1996 and the end of 2001.” As a result, child poverty rates declined significantly, about 30 percent from 1993 to 2000, with poverty among black children falling to its lowest level ever. There is still room for improvement, but welfare reform is proving to be a valuable safety net for the poor, when properly defined.

The Future Is Now

Coming to grips with the purpose of welfare in the twenty-first century has been difficult for many pre-reform idealists. Their thinking is stuck on the old notion of how safety nets work—a perspective that can be seen in their reaction to the decrease in welfare recipients during the recession. A former welfare policy specialist who resigned when President Clinton signed the legislation said, “It’s an obvious puzzle: Why didn’t welfare rolls grow in the recession? A safety net ought to respond to a recession; there is something wrong if it doesn’t.” A correct conception of the safety net leads to a very plausible explanation—welfare reform is working. It is no longer a given that welfare rolls expand during recessions because recipients are using the skills they have learned while in the safety net to solve problems for themselves. Personal resources gained through education and training are now their first resort. Beyond that, welfare resources may no longer be necessary. That is either a tragedy or a triumph, depending on how you define success.