What Good is a Safety Net?


November 7, 2014

America’s safety net is one of our most maligned and threatened public institutions, where attacks rely on arguments about decreasing the size of government and “entitlement reform.” But a funny thing happens when you ask Americans what they are willing to cut: the answer is, not much.
Americans recognize that our safety net provides stability and security to our loved ones and our communities. These aren’t far-off programs that help people somewhere else. They’re programs that touch the lives of the people you interact with every day.

State Smart map

With the release of State Smart, a website that shows you in graphic detail how much federal aid comes to your state, we’re rethinking the way that entire communities benefit from the existence of these programs.

We’re talking about our parents and grandparents receiving a hard-earned check from Social Security after decades of work, and getting check-ups and prescriptions through Medicare. We’re talking about friends and neighbors who were laid off during the recession and made it through the tough times thanks to unemployment insurance. We’re talking about kids showing up to school well-nourished and ready to learn thanks to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

From California’s agricultural Central Valley to cities like Detroit and Washington, DC, to coal mining towns in Appalachia, the numbers show that America’s safety net supports our grandparents, parents, children and neighbors when they need it most:

    • Our nation has a strong commitment to taking care of seniors after a lifetime of hard work. The biggest category of federal money in 47 states is aid to individuals, driven primarily by our commitment to take care of our parents and grandparents through Social Security and Medicare.
    • Federal aid to individuals is a way of planning for the worst. In the Great Recession, SNAP benefits more than doubled, and unemployment benefits nearly tripled as the safety net expanded to help those who were hurting the most.
    • The safety net doesn’t discriminate on the basis of red state or blue, urban or rural. For instance, the states that received the biggest bump in unemployment insurance (on a per person basis) from 2007 to 2010 were Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Florida and Wyoming.
    • SNAP – or food stamps – is a small program that makes a big difference: even as the program doubled after the recession to meet the escalating need, the entire SNAP program still came in at less than ten percent of the cost of another safety net program, Social Security.

What’s more, Americans are willing to pay for these programs:

    • Late last year as unemployment benefits ran out for millions of Americans still out of work after the recession, a majority of Americans supported extending those benefits.
    • More than 70% of Americans supported maintaining or increasing aid to the needy, and more Americans would increase than decrease such aid.

Without these programs, communities across America would see more of their neighbors and relatives, lining up at food banks, failing to make rent or mortgage payments, and running out of options.  With these programs quietly humming along, our communities are stronger. Counterproductive attacks not only threaten that security, but they fail to recognize that Americans want to contribute to their communities in this way.

Want to see how your state measures up? Head over to State Smart and see how federal aid to individuals made a difference in your state before, during and after the recession.

Budget and Appropriations
Poverty and Income
safety net
Social Security
Social Services
State Smart
unemployment insurance