February 16, 2021

Poverty Results from Structural Barriers, Not Personal Choices. Safety Net Programs Should Reflect That Fact.

February 16, 2021

As the pandemic enters its second year, most Americans support additional cash payments to families to allow them to meet basic expenses while the economy continues to struggle, in part because many people see COVID-19-related economic challenges as the result of external causes and not the fault of individual people.

Yet many families—especially people of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—were already facing severe economic challenges because of structural barriers preventing them from reaping the benefits of a strong economy. These families sometimes rely on federal safety net programs to access the resources they need to afford food, rent, and other necessities.

But the social safety net is fundamentally inequitable. The structure of programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ignore systemic barriers rooted in structural racism that disproportionately affect people of color, especially Black Americans. Instead, these programs are meager and punitive, designed to blame individual shortcomings—even though evidence debunks the myth that laziness or poor choices cause poverty.  

The current economic crisis and its disproportionate impacts highlight the need to redesign safety net programs to rectify these inequities and ensure everyone can access the resources they need to provide for their families.

Structural barriers cause poverty, not individual choices

A focus on individual responsibility is rooted in the assumptions of the American dream, which promotes the idea that if someone works hard, follows social and moral rules, and takes personal responsibility, they will be financially successful. So, under this assumption, if they are struggling financially, they must have done something wrong or aren’t working hard enough. And too often, these expectations are seen through a racist lens, which perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

These ideas about who experiences poverty and why are flawed because they ignore the structural forces that contribute to poverty. Numerous interrelated systems and structures make it more difficult for some people to provide for their families. These structures drive disparities in access to transportation, education, child care, health care, high-quality jobs, and affordable housing near work, as well as in interaction with the justice system and mass incarceration.

Racial disparities and discrimination are embedded in each of these systems. Racial gaps in educational access and attainment, as well as Black workers’ overrepresentation in low-wage industries and occupations, contribute to a Black-white earnings gap. And even among people with comparable education, Black people receive lower wages than their white peers. These disparities are what contribute to economic insecurity and poverty.

Safety net programs perpetuate disparities by focusing on individual deservingness

Given these structural factors and their disproportionate impact on people of color in the US, it is clear that laziness and immorality are not the root causes of poverty. Yet, these flawed ideas still form the basis of the American safety net. For programs providing cash, nutrition assistance, and other supports, eligibility requirements are high, benefits are low, and sanctions are harsh, with the goal of ensuring only desperately needy people who take “personal responsibility” (PDF) can access assistance.

SNAP, which is available only to households with net incomes below the federal poverty level, helped one in nine people in the US access food in 2019. But in 99 percent of US counties, the maximum SNAP benefit per meal is not enough to cover low-income meal costs. In all but two states, families with earnings at the federal poverty level earn too much to qualify for cash assistance through TANF. For every 100 families experiencing poverty in 2019, only 23 received TANF cash assistance. On average, states provide a family of three with no more than $462 a month in TANF benefits. In Mississippi, the maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is $170 a month.

In addition to the income limits, other restrictions on program participation are designed to test the deservingness of applicants or recipients, further reflecting flawed ideas about the causes of poverty.

Some states require costly drug tests, even though few people test positive. Both SNAP and TANF require adults to demonstrate they are working or engaged in allowable work activities as a condition of participation. Research shows work requirements neither address the root causes of poverty nor help people find and maintain stable, well-paying jobs that keep them out of poverty. And the red tape associated with work requirements can lead to people losing access to benefits even when they are employed or should be exempt.

Black Americans, in particular, often face greater scrutiny in safety net programs, leading to further disadvantages. This shows up in state policies for TANF cash assistance, a program for which states decide who gets assistance, how much, for how long, and under what conditions. Research shows Black Americans are disproportionately concentrated in states with less generous TANF benefits, more restrictive requirements, and shorter time limits. Racial differences in TANF have also been observed in sanctions, receipt of work support services like child care, and access to education and training.

Equity should drive changes in safety net programs

Fundamental solutions to the economic inequities facing people of color in the United States are needed to address the structures and narratives that force so many families to experience economic insecurity. To ensure solutions are moving in the right direction, policymakers can evaluate proposals through the equity lens the Biden administration and others have proposed.

Providing a more equitable and generous safety net benefiting everyone who needs economic support would help address the nation’s history of structural racism and would be a critical step toward recognizing that poverty is the result of systemic barriers, not individual choices.

Jourie Ortiz gets some attention from his wife Rebecka after he was woozy and hardly able to stand after going 48 hours with only about 5 hours of sleep. He works an overnight shift but then comes home to be with his family and only gets 2.5 hours of sleep on many days. Many families and individuals in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, take part in the SNAP program. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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