Further Thoughts On Our Safety Net and the Deserving Poor

Awhile ago, New York Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote a first-rate piece on the patchwork of programs that passes for our safety net. Health care, housing, food stamps, cash assistance–each its own “separate bureaucratic world” with rules that often collide with others.

A recent symposium hosted by the Urban Institute took a deeper dive into the the sorry shape of our safety net and what we ought to do about it. For me, the biggest take-away was the explanation of the gaps and inconsistencies DeParle’s article illustrates.

The “jumble” we’ve got results in part from differing views of government over time–belief in a strong federal role during the Depression and again in the 1960’s, deference to states and the private sector taking hold in the 1990’s.

It’s also the product of conflicting values–fairness, individual freedom, family and community and, very importantly, self-reliance and the value of work. Taken as a whole, its goals are to protect the vulnerable and to provide both basic financial security and equal opportunity. But some programs focus on one and some on another. They can work at cross-purposes–even internally.

Still there’s a common thread. Benefits should go mainly–or exclusively–to those who deserve them. And the way you deserve them is by working or having worked.

Children are a partial exception here because benefits for them are designed to help them grow up to be workers. There are also some limited exceptions for people who we’ve decided can’t work through no fault of their own–for example, individuals with severe disabilities. Not included are people who face barriers like lack of skills, race discrimination and/or a criminal record. And, of course, recent immigrants are beyond the pale.

No panelist seemed inclined to question this notion of the deserving poor. As I’ve written before, Ron Haskins is a true believer. Not so Demetra Nightingale (source of the above). But she apparently believes that reforms to our safety net have to respect our existing framework of values, i.e., give primacy to the work ethic.

From a practical political perspective, she’s probably right. But I wish it were otherwise.

I’m not questioning the value of work. For me personally, it’s been a continuing source of personal fulfillment, connectedness and autonomy. So I’m all for programs that help people who want to work–and I believe most do–find employment that offers them reasonable security and satisfaction.

But I wonder about assigning value only to paying work. Why insist that self-sufficiency trumps contributing to the common good–that getting a paycheck makes one more deserving than raising a child or campaigning for a cause or cleaning up the neighborhood?

More basically, I’m troubled by the paradigm. By and large, we seem to view our safety net as an act of collective charity extended to individuals we deem worthy of our care. So we debate who is deserving and how much we can afford to dispense to them once we’ve taken care of other priorities.

What if we instead viewed the safety net as an essential component of our shared interest in a healthy, prosperous, humane community?

I realize this is a pie-in-the-sky notion for a country that’s built on a myth of rugged individuals boot-strapping their way up the economic scale, looking out for themselves and their families, responsible for all they and their forebears have amassed.

But I think we’d all be better off if we thought more about the welfare of the whole and less about who deserves welfare.

NOTE: For a bird’s-eye view of the complexities and internal conflicts in our safety net, take a look at the charts reproduced from Repairing the U.S. Safety Net, co-authored by Nightingale and her Urban Institute colleague Martha Burt.

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