Defending the Social Safety Net

Cash donations sit in a bucket at a church where Jenn Gibbons spoke to friends, family and other supporters in South Haven, M
Cash donations sit in a bucket at a church where Jenn Gibbons spoke to friends, family and other supporters in South Haven, Mich., on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. Gibbons, 27, began a quest to row around the 1,500-mile perimeter of Lake Michigan to raise money for Chicago-based Recovery on Water, a rowing team she co-founded for breast cancer survivors., In July, she was sexually assaulted on her boat, while sleeping along Michigan's Upper Peninsula _ but made the decision to continue the journey, part on bicycle, part by boat. She reunited with her boat Aug. 1 in Muskegon, Mich., and is expected back in Chicago in mid-August. (AP Photo/Mimi Weinreb)

More than 46 million people -- and 16 million children -- are poor in the United States. The poverty rate among American children is 22 percent, the highest since 1993, and among the highest recorded since the mid-60s. Sadly, poverty in America is not marginal -- it's mainstream.

The federal and state social "safety net" has helped keep these millions of new poor from outright destitution during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Since 2007, participation in the Medicaid public health insurance program has grown by 8.8 million. Participation has risen by more than 18 million in the food stamp program that helps support family food budgets. The number of low-income kids receiving free school lunches has risen by three million.

Congressional proposals to convert the Medicaid and food stamp programs to block grants to states accompanied by deep federal spending cuts would tear large holes in these critical safety net programs. More immediately, the House version of the still-pending 2012 Farm Bill would make deep cuts in the nutrition title funding the food stamp and school lunch programs. These proposed cuts would do little to balance budgets while exacting a great price from America's most vulnerable families.

Protecting state social safety nets is also critical. States contribute important funding to Medicaid, state Child Health Insurance Programs, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Unemployment Insurance, and child care subsidies for low-income working parents, among other programs. The Great Recession and its lingering aftermath has damaged state budgets to an extent unseen for decades, severely challenging states' capacity to support these vital social programs.

While some states have responded by enacting damaging cuts to work supports for low-income families, other states with equal or greater fiscal shortfalls have found ways to balance their budgets without compromising their safety nets. Among other initiatives, these states have tapped new sources of revenue and found savings in both safety net and other programs that are less damaging to the well-being of America's poor families. The governors of Connecticut and Illinois stand out for their imaginative and robust approach to raising new revenues even as they strengthened key elements of the safety net, notably their state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income wage earners.

We know what we need to do to as a nation to lift millions of Americans out of poverty: create new living-wage jobs; maintain a strong safety net for the unemployed and those who cannot work; and invest in high-quality education and health care beginning in early childhood to give the next generation a solid foundation for healthy and productive lives.

Curtis Skinner, PhD, director of Family Economic Security, National Center for Children in Poverty. Columbia University.

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