America’s social safety net, such as it is, has recently come under some scrutiny. Chana Joffe-Walt’s in-depth exploration of the increase in people getting Social Security Disability benefits at NPR got many listeners buzzing. Then in The Wall Street Journal, Damian Paletta and Caroline Porter looked at the increase in the use of food stamps, called SNAP. All three journalists look at the increasing dependence on these programs and come away puzzled: Why are so many people now getting disability and food stamp payments?
The answer is twofold. Recent trends give us the first part of the explanation. Yes, as Paletta and Porter note, the economy is recovering and the unemployment rate is falling. But, as they recognize, the poverty rate is also rising. And therein lies the rub: people are getting jobs but staying poor. The available jobs are increasingly low-wage and don’t pay enough to live off of. And the big profits in the private sector haven’t led to an increase in wages.
GDP and employment may be doing well, but that hasn’t done much for those at the bottom of the totem pole. As the WSJ article points out, 48.5 million people were living in poverty in 2011, up from 37.3 million in 2007, a 30 percent increase. This is despite an unemployment rate that’s fallen off its peak. Some of the fall in the unemployment rate has been driven by people simply giving up on looking for a job altogether. But those who do get jobs are likely trading their once middle-class employment for low-wage work. The National Employment Law Project has found that mid-wage jobs have been wiped out during the recovery in favor of low-wage work: low paying jobs grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage or high-wage work.
But there’s a deeper explanation that goes beyond the current economic picture. Aren’t there other programs for the increasing ranks of people living in poverty to turn to? Unfortunately, we’ve worked hard to weaken key parts of the safety net by changing how programs operate and then cutting back on their funds. Consequently, the number of people who are reached by programs for the poor has shrunk. But when you take away someone’s lifeline, they don’t stop needing it. So they either suffer hardship or find support elsewhere. What disability insurance and SNAP have in common is that they are fully funded by the federal government, which also can set the eligibility requirements. While states narrow eligibility requirements for TANF or unemployment insurance, the federal government can leave them (relatively) more open for SNAP and disability. That leaves them absorbing those who we’ve thrown off the rolls of other programs.
Unemployment benefits are where people turn when they lose a job and need income before getting back to work. But due to financial and other requirements, not everyone gets them. These rules vary state by state because states are in almost complete control of the program. They set their own eligibility criteria and benefit levels and are also on the hook for most of the funding for the benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, “the federal government pays only the administrative costs.”
Unlike the federal government, states have constrained budgets and most have to balance them every year. These budgets get even tighter in a downturn when people lose jobs and don’t pay as many taxes. On top of this, states have come under pressure from business groups during good times to reduce the contributions they use to fund the reserves that pay out benefits when things get tough. So many states have cut back on eligibility or benefit amounts in light of squeezed budgets. Given all of these constraints on benefits, only about a third of all children whose parents were unemployed at some point in 2011 actually saw any unemployment insurance benefits. They were far more likely to get food stamps, a federally funded program that has been much more flexible.
This story of a program financed by states that hasn’t been able to keep up with demand is the same for another huge part of the social safety net: welfare, or as we know it now, TANF. TANF does even worse than unemployment: it reaches just 10 percent of the children living with unemployment parents and just 30 percent of those living in poverty. The program used to do much better: in 1996, it reached 70 percent of poor families with children living in poverty. But then there was welfare reform, which turned it from a cost-sharing model to a block grant. Rather than the federal government sharing the costs with the states, the government now doles out lumps of cash and mostly lets states handle the rest. That lump doesn’t change even if the economy gets worse and more people live in poverty—and hasn’t even kept up with inflation.
While welfare reformers initially claimed victory as rolls fell during a booming 90s economy, the numbers have continued to fall even as jobs have disappeared. The poverty rate among families is back up to 1996 levels, but TANF’s caseload has fallen by 60 percent since then.
These families aren’t magically de-impoverished when they’re kicked off of government support programs. So they either go hungry or find other means of support. Enter SNAP and disability. SNAP has grown by 45 percent to meet increased need in the poor economy. The federal government was able to increase funding and waive some barriers to entering the program.
The CBPP reports that the growth in the use of disability insurance, on the other hand, is in large part due to demographic factors—an aging population and women’s increased entrance into the workforce—which accounts for half its growth since 1990. The elderly are far more likely to be disabled than younger workers, and more women workers means more workers who might become disabled. Other factors that contributed to its growth include the economic downturn. Joffe-Walt reports on how disability has dovetailed with welfare pruning its rolls. As she shows in two graphs, the number of low-income people on disability rose just as the number of families on welfare declined. Disability receipts also rise as unemployment rises. To qualify for disability, an applicant must have, as CBPP puts it, “little or no income and few assets”—which means that if unemployment and poverty rise, more people will fit this description. As Harold Pollack points out, “If you have a bad back, and the only jobs available are manual labor, that’s a real limitation. You’re unable to work. So it very much matters that we’re in a deep recession and a lot of the opportunities people faced are limited.”
Other than elderly disabled workers, those who sign up for disability are those who can’t even dream of finding a job that doesn’t require physical exertion and have no other income—thus leaving them with no where to turn but disability. After all, unemployment only lasts so long and TANF now comes with strict work requirements. Disability steps in when those with low education levels who live in communities based around industry—hard manual labor—lose their jobs and fall into poverty.
This is what happens when you burn enormous holes in the fabric of the social safety net: people either fall through or cling to the remaining parts. We can certainly debate whether we want food stamps and disability to carry so much of the burden of supporting the poor and vulnerable. In fact, this all seems to point to the simplest answer, which is to just hand money to those in poverty rather than funnel it through these different programs that may or may not actually meet people’s needs. But what we shouldn’t do is assume that food stamps and disability are bloated programs because so many people rely on them and then jump to cutting them back. Poor people don’t disappear just because we slash the programs they rely on. They still struggle to get by. That’s the lesson we should have learned over the past two decades.