The Commercial Appeal just ran an interesting editorial by Catherine Rampell about the effect the direction of the U.S. social safety net. The thrust of her argument is that there has been a bipartisan trend towards cutting programs that benefit the poorest in favor of programs that tend to help middle and upper income individuals:
Federal disability rolls have also grown dramatically in recent decades. As with Medicare, people don’t have to prove they’re poor to receive Social Security Disability Insurance, so the expansion of SSDI has disproportionately benefited middle-class and “near-poor” families, at least relative to other programs that do means-test.
But ideology has played a major role in the reallocation of safety-net spending, too.
Since the early 1990s, politicians have deliberately shifted funds away from those perceived to be the most needy and toward those perceived to be the most deserving. The bipartisan 1996 welfare reform — like the multiple expansions of the earned-income tax credit — was explicit about rewarding the working poor rather than the nonworking poor. As a result, total spending per capita on “welfare” slid by about two-thirds over the past two decades, even as the poverty rate for families has stayed about the same. Many welfare reformers would consider this a triumph; if you believe many of the poorest families are not out of work by choice, though, you might have a more nuanced view.
I think that there is some truth to this observation, but really this oversimplifies what is going on with safety net programs. True, we don’t means test Medicare or some Social Security benefits. Similarly, the country has routinely authorized lengthy unemployment insurance extensions. But she doesn’t account for the structuring of state programs. In Tennessee, for example, the mentally ill can receive mental health treatment that is close to being free through the “State Only” or “Safety Net” programs. But this program has a very steep means test. The effect of this is that people with zero household income are able to get mental health treatment, those with virtually any household income (usually from a spouse) are quickly priced out of any help from the program.
Though I agree with her that the safety net for the poor has been hit hard, it still needs a lot of strengthening for the middle class as well.