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Rethinking America’s Social Safety Net

Research & Commentary
March 06, 2017

by Sheila Kennedy

It may be time to re-conceptualize our 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, everything from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way — and focusing, as many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans — facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

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

Public school education provides just one necessary link in a strong social safety net.

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 disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week.

I want to suggest that 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. [pullquote]Public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty.[/pullquote]

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 reviewing data about outcomes achieved by traditional public schools 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 the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in a 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.

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at

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