Skip Navigation

A Safety Net That Works: Improving Federal Programs for Low-Income Americans

February 8, 2017
By Robert Doar

Improving Federal Programs for Low-Income Americans

From the Preface:

"Americans are frustrated that too little progress is being made in reducing poverty and expanding opportunity. In a recent AEI/Los Angeles Times survey, 70 percent of Americans said they believe the conditions for the poor had either stayed the same or gotten worse over the past 10 or 15 years, and 60 percent believe that most poor people will probably remain in poverty. Clearly the promise of upward mobility has not felt like a reality for many families stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. In fact, one study from Pew Charitable Trusts found that 43 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as adults, and more than 20 percent of children lived in poverty in 2014.

"To be sure, the official poverty rate is a flawed metric because it does not consider a significant amount of government-provided assistance that raises many families’ incomes above the poverty line. Better measures of poverty show that we have made progress in reducing material hardship, and experts from the left and right agree that the poor today are better off materially than in the past.

"But they are better off largely because of government assistance, not because they are working or earning more on their own—and therein lies the current dissatisfaction. Poverty fighters across the political spectrum have consistently said that helping low-income Americans achieve sufficient earnings should be the goal of our antipoverty efforts. The AEI/Los Angeles Times survey found that more than half of Americans living in poverty said that the main purpose of welfare programs should be helping poor people get back on their feet again, not simply providing for their material needs.

"Thankfully, most mainstream leaders understand the key principles of a better approach. Able-bodied adults need to work because steady employment almost always leads a family out of poverty, provides opportunities for upward mobility, and is a source of dignity and purpose. Children are best off when they are raised by two committed parents, which is most likely to happen in marriage. And society must maintain a safety net that reduces material hardship, ensures that children can be raised in healthy environments, and rewards individuals who work.

"However, translating these principles into effective public policy and detailed legislation is a difficult task. My hope is that this volume will be a useful resource for those trying to do just that. In the pages that follow, we have brought together academics and practitioners with decades of experience studying and implementing the crucial federal programs that assist low-income Americans. Each essay will discuss a program’s history, what research and personal experience show about its effects, and one expert’s view of how to help it work better.

"Of course, not all of the problems facing low-income Americans will be solved by federal antipoverty programs. But political reality dictates that these major programs are not going to disappear anytime soon, meaning leaders who are serious about helping poor Americans should learn how they work and develop an agenda for improving them. Moreover, many of these assistance programs do reduce poverty and, with thoughtful reform, could be even more effective in helping struggling Americans move up. This volume intends to help policymakers understand how each program functions—its strengths, as well as its weaknesses.

"Policymakers have an important responsibility, along with the rest of civil society, to develop a safety net that works and better helps poor Americans increase their earnings. When President Johnson declared our nation’s “war on poverty,” he defined our task as striving to “replace despair with opportunity.” While none of the authors presented here have all the answers, I hope these analyses and proposals can help us move toward finally living up to that mission.

Robert Doar
Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies"