Column: We must fix the social safety net, not shame those in need

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Editor’s Note: Kristin S. Seefeldt is Assistant Professor in the Schools of Social Work and Public Policy at the University of Michigan and the author of “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century”. Seefeldt spent six years interviewing low-income women in the greater Detroit area who have faced underemployment and unemployment, economic and residential segregation, and barriers to accessing assistance. Below, Seefeldt sets out the argument for fixing our social safety net and dispels beliefs that those who access it are “dependent” on welfare.

– Kristen Doerer, Editor of Making Sen $ e


Despite President Trump’s promises to bring jobs back to the United States, some Americans will continue to be unemployed, some will lose their jobs in the future, while others will earn wages too low to support their families. . The social safety net, made up of various programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, aims to ensure that families are able to meet their basic needs during times of unemployment and underemployment. At the same time, the safety net is perpetually under attack, in part because of the belief that those who use it are “dependent” on and “abusing” the system.

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However, for many, especially women in low-paying jobs, the safety net is so frayed that instead of being “dependent” on it, they even find it difficult to access it. When interviewing such women for my new book, “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the 21st Century,” I discovered that you can’t always count on programs meant to help during tough times. To obtain benefits, it was often necessary to fight with lawyers, employers and bureaucrats. Social workers repeatedly made mistakes that disrupted benefits that were initially difficult to obtain. Delays in receiving benefits – or no benefits at all – have contributed to many hardships for these women and their families.

Consider the situations faced by Tamara and Sharon, two single mothers who have lost their jobs. Tamara was injured while working in an assisted living facility, possibly because she frequently lifted immobile patients. Since her employer had no other job she could do, she applied for Unemployment Insurance, the federal state program that partially replaces the wages of those who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Sharon also applied for unemployment insurance when she was fired from her job as an accountant. The two women were initially denied benefits because their employers contested their statements.

Why would an employer do this? The unemployment insurance program is funded in part by taxes paid by employers on behalf of their employees. Tax rates are determined by an employer’s “experience rating”, which means that the more claims paid to former workers, the more taxes the employer pays. Employers are therefore encouraged to keep their experience rate as low as possible. One way to do this is to never lay off workers. Another way is to fight against the demands of workers trying to get unemployment benefits.

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Tamara finally got her benefits, but not before she got her car back and almost cut off the power, as she went months without any income. Sharon’s case took over six months to be resolved in her favor; in the meantime, she has racked up significant credit card debt, using her cards to pay off everything from her mortgage to shopping.

Rhonda, a single mother of four, lost a job in home health care. Her job was so low paid and her working hours were so irregular that she was eligible for assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. Once she was unemployed, her benefits should have been increased to take into account the loss of earnings. Instead, his food stamps actually stopped. Rhonda informed her caseworker, who assured her the error would be corrected, but the following month she still had no benefits. Rhonda said she repeatedly called the welfare office, but the social worker never answered any of her calls. Rhonda eventually contacted a supervisor at the welfare office, and her benefits resumed, but stopped again the following month. Her social worker claimed that the problem was caused by a “problem” in the state’s computer system, and she was unable to resolve it.

Tamara, Sharon and Rhonda’s experiences were not unique. Long waits for benefits were common among the women I interviewed. Another woman I interviewed, Nichelle, has already waited over a year to be approved for food stamps and Medicaid; social workers have lost their papers time and time again. While parents fed Nichelle’s children, she often went without meals. The proportion of disputed UI claims has increased over the past 20 years, and some employers are hiring companies that specialize in addressing cases of laid-off workers claiming UI.

We do not yet know of the Trump administration’s plans for safety net reform, although advisers have signaled their support for the overall granting of Medicaid, i.e. providing a fixed sum of money. to states that does not change based on program needs. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already proposed a similar funding structure for SNAP. Since block grants are fixed, states may have less money to spend on programs and their administration if more people than expected apply for and use the programs, making it unlikely that we will see investments in the program. improving staff levels and management systems that could reduce the types of delays experienced by these women.

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In addition, the rhetoric about changing recipient behavior – imposing timelines for receiving aid and other demands to keep people away from social protection programs so that they do not become “addicted” – is the key. dominant speech. For the women I interviewed, addiction was not a problem; they had a hard time just getting any benefits in the first place. Rather, reform efforts could target the performance of social workers and provide money for states to modernize computer systems so that paperwork is not “wasted.” The financing structure of the unemployment insurance system must also be reviewed, so that employers are not encouraged to contest the claims of people they have made redundant.

A safety net is only useful if people can access its benefits. Our current system is unraveling and allowing too many people to fall through the cracks.

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