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Slashing the safety net slashes opportunity

Slashing the safety net slashes opportunity
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We come from different backgrounds. One of us grew up in inner city Baltimore. The other one of us grew up in a small Texas border town on the Rio Grande River. One of us often saw open-air drug deals while biking to the morning shift for a weekend job at a nearby coffee shop. The other one of us spent weekends working the long, endless fields of onions. 

Yet, despite our childhood differences, we shared a common thread — the safety net. When our families needed it most, the safety net provided us help with food, shelter or protection. And because of this, it provided us with an opportunity to aspire for a better living.

Right now, the Trump administration is actively trying to eliminate this opportunity.

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Back in February, when President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE released his 2021 budget proposal, he made his priorities for a second term clear — slash the social safety net, and with it, slash opportunity for the lives of so many people in need. 

The safety net is a collection of essential services. It includes support for food (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), support for shelter (with public or subsidized housing) and support for health care (like Medicaid). Now, as COVID-19 upends the economy and disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities, President Trump continues to push for changes that would greatly reduce participation in flagship safety net programs designed to protect Americans from poverty, hardship and hunger. 

The debate about the safety net turns mostly on politics and not science. But we must listen to the evidence. Otherwise, millions of Americans will needlessly suffer. As researchers of health policy, we understand the evidence. As recipients of the safety net program while growing up, we know the importance of these programs first-hand.

Contrary to the belief that these programs are a “poverty trap” or a mechanism to keep people poor, there is ample evidence that safety net programs are very effective at lifting families out of poverty and promoting health. In fact, safety net programs — particularly those targeting children living in poverty — directly benefit recipients and society more broadly by improving children’s academic, health and economic outcomes. 

Now, more than ever, the safety net is essential because many of the programs are designed to be economically responsive. This means that as incomes fall, more people become eligible to participate in the programs — a characteristic which can also help stabilize the economy.

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The Congressional safeguards to expand participation in the safety net in times of need, without requiring federal action, are being weakened by the Trump administration’s use of rules to undermine the programs. For example, recent rule changes by the Trump administration to tighten work requirements in SNAP and introduce them in Medicaid are expected to reduce participation in these programs by tens of thousands of Americans. This is despite there being no good evidence that safety net participation discourages work and that the majority of people who rely on the safety net who can work do. Participation in safety net programs is also expected to be dampened by Trump administration rules limiting access for some immigrants to permanent residency if they participate in certain safety net programs.

While we fight against active efforts to scale back these programs, we also need to be bold and push for proven policy opportunities to enhance and strengthen the safety net. This should include higher monthly SNAP benefits (which currently average to about $1.40 per person per meal), more states expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, universal free school meals, maintaining the supplemental federal unemployment insurance payments and keeping eviction protections.

As we look at the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latino populations, it is impossible to not also recognize that these are the same groups who are more likely to participate in safety net programs. Therefore, they arguably have the most to lose if these programs are gutted or weakened. If we continue to chip away at the ability of the safety net to support economic mobility and wellbeing, the massive disparities by race and ethnicity exacerbated by COVID-19 will grow even wider, lengthening the pandemic recovery and disadvantaging a generation of children.

For us personally, we will never know how much our families’ participation in the safety net contributed to our own career paths and wellbeing. But, we know it helped meet our basic needs. We had a roof over our head, we were not hungry and we had access to health care when we needed it most. Sadly, this was not the case for many of our grade school classmates, and we worry that this harsh reality will fall upon a new generation of at-risk children. The safety net mattered for us and it matters now for many other Black and Latino people just like us.

Sara Bleich is a professor of Public Health Policy at Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Jose Figueroa is an assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.