What is Public Policy?

Finding a Middle Ground: The Social Safety Net

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States created a set of policies and programs that constituted a social safety net for the millions who had lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings (Figure 11.2). Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government began programs like the Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps to combat unemployment and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance Depression-related mortgage debts. The Texas Department of Public Welfare was established in 1939 during the New Deal. As the eects of the Depression eased, the government phased out many of these programs. Other programs, like Social Security or the minimum wage, remain a part of the way the federal government redistributes wealth among members of its population. The federal government has also added further social support programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to ensure a baseline or minimal standard of living for all, even in the direst of times.

Families in Calipatria, California, waiting in line for relief checks
Figure 11.2 In 1937, during the Great Depression, families in Calipatria, California, waited in line for relief checks, part of the federal government’s newly introduced social safety net. Image credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress.

In recent decades, however, some have criticized these safety net programs for ineciency and for incentivizing welfare dependence. They deride “government leeches” who use food stamps to buy lobster or other seemingly inappropriate items. Critics deeply resent the use of taxpayer money to relieve social problems like unemployment and poverty; workers who may themselves be struggling to put food on the table or pay the mortgage feel their hard-earned money should not support other families. “If I can get by without government support,” the reasoning goes, “those welfare families can do the same. Their poverty is not my problem.”

As for Texas, roughly 14 percent of Texas residents received Social Security benefits as of December 2016, according to the Social Security Administration. That translates to approximately 4 million people in Texas who received Social Security disbursements related to retirement, survivors, or disability benefits. About 2.9 million people in Texas were receiving retirement benefits. Of Texas’ estimated 3.4 million people aged 65 or older, about 87 percent received Social Security benefits, which is lower than this figure for the United States as a whole (which is roughly 90 percent). Benefits in Texas totaled roughly $4.85 billion for the month of December 2016, per the Social Security Administration. That works out to an average benefit of $1,206 for that month.

So where should the government draw the line? While there have been some instances of welfare fraud, the welfare reforms of the 1990s have made long-term dependence on the federal government less likely as the welfare safety net was pushed to the states. And with the income gap between the richest and the poorest at its highest level in history, this topic is likely to continue to receive much discussion in the coming years.

Question: Where is the middle ground in the public policy argument over the social safety net? How can the Texas government protect its most vulnerable citizens without placing an undue burden on others?