That Social Safety Net

It may be time to re-conceptualize the social safety net.

Most of the people who refer to a social safety net use the term as shorthand for a variety of so-called “welfare” programs, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way—and focusing, as so many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans—facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

After all, the comfortable ask, why should the prudent and solvent among us have our hard-earned monies taxed to support “those people”?

It’s easy to see the persistent attacks on income-supports for disadvantaged folks as both dishonest and mean-spirited, and most efforts to rebut them tend to revolve around the realities of social supports: the percentages of recipients who are children, elderly and/or disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week, etc.

We may be missing the forest for the trees.

A “social safety net,” properly conceived, is the web of institutions and services that benefit all members of a given society while building bonds of community and cross-cultural connection. In this broader understanding, the safety net includes public education, public parks, public transportation and other services and amenities available to and used by citizens of all backgrounds and income categories.

Public education is a prime example. Even granting the challenges—the disproportionate resources available to schools serving richer and poorer neighborhoods, the barriers to learning created by poverty—public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty. Public schools, as Benjamin Barber has written, are constitutive of a public.

Common schools create common cultures, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that attacks on public education have been at least partially motivated by that reality. While supporters of charter schools and voucher programs have promoted them as ways of allowing poor children to escape failing schools, the data suggests that most children—including poor children—are better served by schools that remain part of America’s real social safety net.

This point was recently underscored by Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education—a board not noted for progressive understandings of the role of education. After setting out the comparative data about costs and outcomes achieved by traditional public schools in Texas and those operating via various “privatization” programs, he concluded

When you hear the unending and unsubstantiated rhetoric about “failing public schools” from those that support vouchers or other “competitive” school models, it is important to have the facts. ISDs aren’t perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out and get more kids career and college ready than their politically connected competitors. Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.

Recognition that “these lives matter” is the hallmark of a society with a capacious understanding of citizenship—both in the sense of who counts as a citizen, and what constitutes the mutual obligations of citizens to one another.

The actual social safety net is not limited to the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in our society. The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.

Defining the social safety net that way allows us to see that the portion of our taxes used to assist needy fellow-citizens isn’t “forced charity.” It’s our membership dues.


  1. Simply a great post today Sheila.

    However, in consideration of the Indiana voters (and most likely the rest of the nation) I find a problem with one sentence……

    “Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.”

    It is clear that facts do not matter and those lives do not matter.

  2. As you define it, the social safety net makes possible (not guaranteed, as Republicans claim) the concept of equal opportunity that we all are supposed to have. The legacy effect will always favor the few, but the safety net provides “steps” to help the rest of us up.

  3. And now Paul Ryan is working hard to deny Medicaid, then Medicare coverage to millions to ensure that a few have a small percentage increase in their income. To me health care is the most important safety net but the rhetoric from the Republicans has been nothing more than them creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, state-by-state, by under-funding ACA to make sure it struggles and allowing them to select a few data points to support their never-ending attack on it. The Republicans have demonstrated how toxic Tea Party control has been and will continue to be. Aren’t there any elected representatives who are capable of thinking on the grander scale and considering the common good? Aren’t there any voters who can see beyond “What’s in it for me, today” ?

  4. Thomas Ratliff’s comments certainly make me feel hopeful, but he’s such a small faint voice within a megacomplex of yelling white Americans who would call him a “snowflake” and then slap high fives with each other.

    Propaganda has propelled us into a society where public relations rules. Public relations is 100% manipulation.

    In the documentary, “A Century of Self”, they discuss the role Edward Bernays played in shifting our society away from “creating well-informed citizens” to nothing more than “untrustable consumers” who require manipulation. Industry and government share the same goals – manipulation.

    Our “mass media” are mass manipulators. However, as we’ve learned recently, our media are just pawns for what is called the “Deep State”. This con game has been run against Americans since the late 1950’s.

    A democracy requires well-informed citizens. We are far from being informed.

    This has been the modus operandi for many decades. It’s coming to an end, but it will take years to work through. With the internet, it will happen more rapidly. The World Economic Forum puts out a study on democracies in the world. The USA isn’t ranked in the Top 10. In fact, we are referred to as a “flawed democracy”.

    If our local public schools are a litmus test for our democracy, I would say the WEF is 100% accurate. As we obtain more and more information from sources like Wikileaks, we’ll uncover just how much our government distrusts us. The “Deep State” who runs our government should be nervous. As a side note, I saw where Naomi Klein is joining Glenn Greenwald and gang at the Intercept. She’ll get an incredible education from the journalists at the Intercept.

    I don’t think populists on the right and left are too far off. We’ve all been conned and we are all waking up to this fact. All our institutions are flawed. We have one systemic crisis after another (if you think only republicans are clueless, listen to MSNBC, the mouthpiece for “liberals”).

    Whatever history defines this period, it’s an ending of one period and the beginning of another. All institutions and systems will undergo dramatic changes and will require new definitions.

  5. The thing I cannot get over is how Mr. Ryan and others of his thinking ignore the history of the New Deal in all its programs. I guess Ayn Rand convinced him that everybody having at least a bit of money to buy food with is just a communist program.

  6. Thank you Stephen F. Smith!! You’ve summed up very succinctly what I’ve wondered about ever since Mr. Ryan and his ilk came upon the national political scene. They and their truly aberrant thinking make me wonder if Ayn Rand was not a failed communist after all but one of their main line KGB brain washers instead.

  7. It’s nice to see a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education speak up for “facts”. It’s just sad that he and the rest of his board of ignorance don’t believe that facts are appropriate for the history and civics books they select for those children who supposedly matter.

  8. Todd, “All our institutions are flawed.” But are they too far gone to save and revitalize? Bannon and Company would have us think so, thus the call to destroy the administrative state. Then what? Clearly we can now see what the Republicans are being led to do by calls to under-fund HUD, the EPA, the ATS, the Coast Guard, and other security entities in order to heavily fund the military.

    Yes, our institutions are flawed. Do we destroy them or do we shore them up, reform them and thus save the altruistic purpose for which they were created in the first place? That altruistic purpose being the very essence of what is right about this country. Repealing and replacing them via the Republican’s alt-right amoral thinking led by Trump/Bannon/Ryan means the end to our Constitution and democracy as we know it. It would mean the end to morality, decency, and peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. No, it ain’t perfect…. but it can be better if we are willing to sacrifice the time, the money and the effort to make it so.

  9. A very good article, but PLEASE don’t fall into the trap of including Social Security and Medicare as “welfare” programs. That is MY money, that I paid into the system (without any choice in the matter) all my working life. It is NOT WELFARE!

  10. Although the GOP has spent decades including Social Security and Medicare in the welfare pantheon, I have always resented that. Social Security and Medicare are entitlements, in the true definition of the word. Workers and their employers pay into Social Security and Medicare. While perhaps an inneficient method, it is a forced retirement savings account. Workers are “entitled” to those funds when they retire.

  11. See “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War” in Rolling Stone Magazine, 2 days ago. Sorry can’t link, computer on the fritz.

  12. Being almost 80; my memories of school, education and socialization, were in another era. Complain about public schools all you want; before busing (NOT for racial equality per Indianapolis authorities, but for quality education) and long before charter schools and voucher students, our public schools throughout this country managed somehow to produce many of our past leaders in all fields of endeavor. Including politicians, educators, doctors, scientists, et al, and those who didn’t seek higher education managed to learn trades to provide for their own families. How is that working out today?

    Today education is about politics and money; not about learning, succeeding or returning to the community what they benefited from being educated in a system that sought to produce a better educated students for a better future for all Americans. Today many students reach college barely able to read and write; hindering their process and lowering this country to an education level far below other countries around the world. The bill for this lack of insight will come due sooner thanks to Trump, Pence and DeVos (with their plans to teach Bible stories and turn schools into “God’s Kingdom) as we gradually become a Russian satellite nation.

    My 22 year old grandson, Tyler, will graduate from Ball State University in May; he is receiving two honors along with his diploma. Honors in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Development and Habitat for Humanity. He is a member of what is fast becoming the smallest minority in this country, educated in the art of saving our future. He has accepted a good job offer; but will his abilities be needed or accepted in this new Republican society which turns its back on the sciences and are repealing our environmental and energy protection along with all of our children’s rights to a decent education?

    “The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.”

    Will Tyler’s arduous and heavily expensive years in our education system result in returning benefits of his knowledge to society or has he wasted his time and should have instead, been learning the basic skills of legalized thievery and all levels of dishonesty as we see in our current presidential administration?

  13. Let’s wax historical and philosophical to consider our present circumstance in which enemies both foreign and domestic are plotting the downfall of our democracy.
    The resulting description of what Sheila describes so well today amounts to what I call social cohesion, without which we sink into chaos, just as the Greek city-states experienced with their fights between themselves, making all such states easy prey for advancing Roman legions. While I consider history to be linear and not repetitive one can detect a certain pattern here with the “Romans” now described as Russians under the Caesar Putin, awaiting the internal discord as in the ancient Greek city-states that will make us easy prey via cybercrime and other incursions into our democracy, or what’s left of it.
    We have had a democracy for some 230 years and we know that Athenian democracy ended after only 169 years and we know why it ended, so we should take note and learn from history. Yes, it is important not to have internal discord to a point to where the legions march in unimpeded, figuratively speaking, but if our democracy can withstand the scourge of fifth columnists such as Bannon and Miller and Trump there is a chance that with resistance to the fifth columnists such modern day legions will find that their progress not only impeded but repelled.
    We must resist.

  14. Republicans do want to re-define the social safety net: helping themselves and their supporters to as many tax dollars as possible by privatizing everything that can be privatized, such as schools, prisons, parking meters, toll roads, all of which is calculated to guarantee a profit and eliminate competition. Also: coming up for ways to get TIF handouts, government grants and tax abatements. So much for private enterprise, entrepreneurship and all of those other “virtues” Republicans so value.

    Today’s post is excellent, but with Republicans in control of Congress and the Indiana Legislature, there’s no reason for hope.

  15. I feel deprived. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who is willing to admit he or she is not in need of every single penny he or she has placed in his or her bank account. That’s in spite of the fact I’ve spent more than 40 years in a well-known international service club.

    Does that mean I don’t know anybody who has contributed “hard earned money” to a charitable cause? It does not. Most of my friends and acquaintances are very generous contributors. But they’re very annoyed they don’t know everything there is to know about the things they’re supporting.

    The leaders of the welfare programs need to get off of their duffs and do a better job of explaining what’s what to both conservatives and liberals. This is especially important when the nation has a Fake President Donald Trump muddying the waters.

  16. Great piece Sheila.

    In college, my economics professors taught that economic systems in pure forms all have their failings and have to borrow from others to remain viable. For instance, capitalism in its pure form concentrates wealth among too few and the rest of the population will ultimately revolt. BUT government controls which permit a flourishing middle class and which provide social safety nets that rescue the poor from desperation ultimately protect capitalism from its own excesses and eventual failure. It’s too bad that ‘vaccination didn’t take’ with Speaker Ryan and his caucus.

  17. The underlying problem with the “social safety net” is that the beneficiaries and the donors have gotten so far out of sync, even when the journey through time by each individual is factored in, that there are still vast pools of people who are always donors and rarely beneficiaries, and the reverse. No element of the “social safety net” that does not rigorously militate against this result should be- if gently- excised from the system. Like it or not, Darwin was right.

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