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Exploring America’s Social Safety Net And The Political Fights Around It

PBS Newshour

March 4, 2024

View the full video here.

Our new series, “America’s Safety Net,” is focused on the complex web of programs meant to help Americans in need. Over the coming weeks, we’ll take an in-depth look at the different forms of welfare in the U.S. Up first, Geoff Bennett and producer Sam Lane spend some time explaining what the American social safety net actually is, who it serves and how it came to look the way it does today.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett:Tonight, we begin a new series, America’s Safety Net, on the complicated web of programs meant to help Americans in need.Over the coming weeks, we will take an in-depth look at the different forms of welfare in the U.S.But, first, with producer Sam Lane, we’re going to spend some time explaining what the American social safety net actually is, who it serves, and how it came to look the way that it does today.The year was 1935. The U.S. was still struggling through the Great Depression. A quarter of the population was just unemployed, a level the country hadn’t seen before and hasn’t seen since. That August, as part of his New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.Franklin Roosevelt, Former President of the United States: To safeguard the security of American workers and their families.

Geoff Bennett:In addition to the retirement benefits it’s now known for, the law laid a foundation for the government’s role in programs like unemployment insurance and cash assistance for families.Roosevelt called it a cornerstone in the structure which is being built, but is by no means complete.

Franklin Roosevelt:We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family.

Geoff Bennett:In the nearly 90 years since Roosevelt signed that law, politicians in Washington and in statehouses across the country have argued about the best ways to help Americans who live in and near poverty.The disagreements have ranged from the dollar amounts of that assistance to how much it should be tied to work requirements and even to how poverty itself is defined and measured.During his State of the Union in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced an unconditional war on poverty in America.Lyndon Johnson Former President of the United States: Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.(Applause)

Geoff Bennett:Johnson’s war included the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, a permanent food stamp program now known as SNAP, and the expansion of Social Security.At about the same time, the government came up with a uniform way to measure poverty by comparing a family’s income against a national threshold. In 1959, the poverty rate sat at around 22 percent. By 1973, it had dropped to 11 percent, roughly where it was in 2022, with almost 40 million Americans in poverty.But the measure is widely considered imperfect. For example, some say the poverty line, about $31,000 for a family of four, is far too low. So there are other measures that account for things like geography, cost of living, consumption, or how much government assistance a family gets.No matter how it’s measured, poverty is often misunderstood, says Cornell University professor Jamila Michener.

Jamila Michener, Cornell University:We tend to think about poverty as more niche and more limited than it actually is. And because of that, we can tell ourselves that people living in poverty are very, very different than people who aren’t, that maybe there are some things wrong with them.A reality and something that people don’t know is that, if we take a life course perspective, a majority of Americans, something approaching 60 percent, depending on when you measure and how you measure, will experience poverty at some point in their lifetime.

Geoff Bennett:Wow.

Jamila Michener:So most people, if you…

Geoff Bennett:Sixty percent?

Jamila Michener:Or higher. It depends on how we measure it.

Geoff Bennett:Is the social safety net, then, adequate in terms of meeting the need?

Jamila Michener:What I would say from my perspective as a research expert is a resounding no.

Matt Weidinger, American Enterprise Institute:I would answer yes.

Geoff Bennett:Matt Weidinger, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has a different view. He helped create this chart of 80-plus programs from food aid to housing to health care that shows the complexity of the safety net.He says it can be difficult to track the success of specific programs, but:

Matt Weidinger:If you look at nuanced poverty measures that count all the assistance that taxpayers provide, that count the resources that families themselves have from work, from relatives, owning their own homes and all that, the level of poverty in the United States has actually dropped to a relatively low level.

Geoff Bennett:As a congressional staffer, Weidinger helped draft the landmark welfare reform law in the 1990s. The legislation followed years of anti-welfare sentiment driven by perceptions of rampant abuse.In his presidential campaigns, Ronald Reagan popularized the welfare queen stereotype of people cheating the system to collect benefits. By 1994, the number of Americans receiving cash assistance did reach its peak at 14 million. So, in 1996, after a pledge to end welfare as we know it, President Clinton struck a deal with Republicans in Congress.It replaced the cash assistance program of the 1930s with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It imposed time limits and work requirements on welfare and made states responsible for distributing money. The number of families on welfare plummeted.In the years since those reforms, debates have continued over the size and shape of the social safety net.

Matt Weidinger:I’m much more supportive of a work-based safety net, including because that’s what the American people say they want. It’s consistent with how people understand the American dream. They don’t understand the American dream as being something where the government gives you a big enough check that you can avoid working.They understand the American dream as helping people go to work, lift their family, rise over time.

Jamila Michener:It’s important to make the social safety net, I think, about what it is about, which is supporting people in times of need. And when we try to instead make it about making people work, it can end up not providing them with the support they need, ironically, with the support they need to work.Often, we want to do that because there’s some sort of principle. We just want to know that people aren’t, like, mooching off the state or that they’re working sufficiently hard.

Geoff Bennett:And because the benefits are taxpayer-funded.

Jamila Michener:Yes, although, to be fair, people who are living in or near poverty pay taxes too. If you think about it over the long course, many of us are paying in to the social safety net system and many of us will draw out of that system in our time of need.

Geoff Bennett:Before the pandemic, some 99 million Americans, 30 percent of the population, used at least one of the country’s key safety net programs. Altogether, those programs cost the federal government well over $700 billion.And that doesn’t include all of the money for things like the Affordable Care Act, which helps tens of millions of Americans access health care. When President Obama signed the ACA back in 2010, it represented the largest expansion of the safety net in decades.Still, despite welfare’s reach, almost half of American households struggle to make ends meet. And the number is even higher among Black and brown households.Over the coming weeks, we will bring you the stories of those families and show you what it’s like to navigate America’s increasingly complex social safety net. We explore why up to half the people eligible for benefits don’t actually receive them.

Woman:It’s very time consuming. They want to know every little penny, every little change in your circumstance. And any of that could affect you.

Geoff Bennett:Why it’s so hard to access housing assistance, how safety net benefits expanded dramatically during the pandemic and poverty plunged, only to rebound when the policies expired.

Woman:I felt like somebody started to feel our pain. And then they lost all of that. They forgot all that. And we were, like, hung out to dry.

Geoff Bennett:And what works and doesn’t when it comes to alleviating food insecurity nationwide.

Woman:I was digging through my purse trying to find two pennies just to pay the rest of my SNAP. I just feel like trash, that I’m here for a free handout, and I’m just nothing to this country.

Geoff Bennett:This is “PBS NewsHour”‘s special series America’s Safety Net.And you can watch more stories on America’s Safety Net on Mondays here on the “NewsHour,” and catch up with the series on our YouTube page and Web site.

Amna Nawaz:More strong stories ahead.