Debate about policy responses to the current recession offers an opportunity to reflect upon how the safety net helps low-income Americans and how we might strengthen our safety net. Popular impressions of safety net assistance often reference welfare cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) or food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program). While these are important programs of support for low-income Americans, they account for only a small portion of safety net spending.
Instead, today’s safety net delivers much more assistance to persons near and below the poverty line through social service programs that support efforts to find and keep a job, cope with job loss, care for children, or address various health, substance abuse, and mental health problems. While we spent roughly $50 billion on TANF and SNAP in 2008, my recent book Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State (Yale University Press, 2009) estimates that we spend anywhere from $150 and $200 billion each year on social service programs. Instead of a safety net predicated on cash assistance, the safety net focuses on helping poor families achieve better economic trajectories through a range of support services.
The disconnect between popular conceptions and the reality of safety net assistance not only leads to distorted political rhetoric and policy debate, but it leads us to look past important structural features of the safety net that impede our ability to successfully deliver programs of assistance.
Inherent Localness of the Safety Net
Unlike cash assistance, most social service programs cannot be delivered to clients in their homes. As a result, social service elements of the safety net rely upon local agencies to provide assistance at the street-level. Because the capacity of local social service organizations varies by region, city, and town, the American safety net actually is a conglomeration of tens of thousands of unique local safety nets. This inherent localness makes our safety net responsive to local needs and preferences, but its fragmented nature also inhibits efforts to coordinate programs, minimize duplication, or respond swiftly to widespread increases in poverty or changes in the economy.
Moreover, local variation in provision of social service can lead to safety net assistance that is inaccessible to the poor. In Out of Reach, I interviewed nearly 1,500 public and nonprofit service organizations to examine patterns of social service accessibility in metropolitan Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Using these survey data, I find high-poverty neighborhoods (poverty rate over 20%) to have about one-third as much access to a variety of social services as low-poverty neighborhoods (poverty rate less than 10%). Where providers choose to locate is driven by many complex considerations, but we should be concerned that inadequate access to service providers will translate into many low-income families failing to receive needed safety net assistance because they cannot find help nearby.
Difficulty Responding to Rising Need
Particularly relevant given today’s economic environment, public and private funding for social service programs decreases during economic downturns, when government revenues, private endowments, and charitable giving decline. This responsiveness to the economic cycle means that funding available for social service programming decreases at the same time that need for assistance increases. Again turning to my interviews with service providers completed for Out of Reach, I find that about 40 percent of respondents reported decreases in at least one of five key funding sources in the years following the recession that began in 2001 (e.g., government grants or contracts, Medicaid, nonprofit grants or contracts, private giving, earned revenue). Given the severity of today’s economic conditions, we should expect the percentage of agencies reporting lost funds today to be much higher.
Not surprisingly, less reliable revenue flows generally lead to less predictable services. For example, seven out of ten government and nonprofit service agencies reporting a recent decrease in funding at the time of my interviews also reported reducing staff levels, the range of services offered, numbers of clients served, or even temporarily closing the facility to cope with lost funding. A bitterly ironic feature of today’s safety net, therefore, is that the social service agencies upon which the safety net rests become vulnerable during economic downturns right at the moment when stable sources of support are most necessary.
Moving forward, we should expect the spatial accessibility and stability of the nonprofit social service sector to continue to be of enormous importance to the broad array of proposals composing today’s federal antipoverty agenda. In fact, the success of recently proposed federal antipoverty strategies ultimately rests on the strength of local service organizations. For example, for transitional job and employment training programs to be effective they should be located within reasonable commuting distances of low-skill job-seekers. Effects of social service programs intended to strengthen parenting and engage non-custodial fathers will likely vary according to the availability of such programs in neighborhoods where needs are greatest. Accomplishments of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will rest on the strength and sustainability of local faith-based and secular nonprofit service organizations. Likewise, neighborhood investment through programs like the Promise Neighborhoods initiative will yield results only if there is adequate nonprofit service delivery infrastructure in place.
By strengthening our public and private commitments to helping the poor, however, we can work toward building local safety nets that offer support to those in need and that will help the country emerge from the economic challenges ahead.