The Invisible Safety Net: Protecting the Nation's Poor Children and Families

The Invisible Safety Net: Protecting the Nation's Poor Children and Families

The Invisible Safety Net: Protecting the Nation's Poor Children and Families

The Invisible Safety Net: Protecting the Nation's Poor Children and Families


In one of the most provocative books ever published on America's social welfare system, economist Janet Currie argues that the modern social safety net is under attack.

Unlike most books about antipoverty programs, Currie trains her focus not on cash welfare, which accounts for a small and shrinking share of federal expenditures on poor families with children, but on the staples of today's American welfare system: Medicaid, Food Stamps, Head Start, WIC, and public housing. These programs, Currie maintains, form an effective, if largely invisible and haphazard safety net, and yet they are the very programs most vulnerable to political attack and misunderstanding.

This book highlights both the importance and the fragility of this safety net, arguing that, while not perfect, it is essential to fighting poverty. Currie demonstrates how America's safety net is threatened by growing budget deficits and by an erroneous public belief that antipoverty programs for children do not work and are riddled with fraud.

By unearthing new empirical data, Currie makes the case that social programs for families with children are actually remarkably effective. She takes her argument one step further by offering specific reforms--detailed in each chapter--for improving these programs even more. The book concludes with an overview of an integrated safety net that would fight poverty more effectively and prevent children from slipping through holes in the net. (For example, Currie recommends the implementation of a benefit "debit card" that would provide benefits with less administrative burden on the recipient.)

A complement to books such as Barbara Ehrenreich's bestselling Nickel and Dimed, which document the personal struggles of the working poor, The Invisible Safety Net provides a big-picture look at the kind of programs and solutions that would help ease those struggles. Comprehensive and authoritative, it will prompt a major reexamination of the current thinking on improving the lives of needy Americans.


In 1994, welfare caseloads reached a historic high of 5.1 million families, about 15 percent of all American households. Since then, the welfare rolls have been cut in half, partly as a result of the strong economy of the late 1990s, and partly as a result of radical welfare reform, which began in 1996, when the Clinton administration fulfilled a pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” The administration eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main cash welfare program for poor women and children in the United States, which had given cash payments directly to eligible women to support them and their families, and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—its very name underlining the transitory nature of the assistance. TANF limited women to a lifetime total of five years of support, toughened work requirements, and strengthened sanctions on women who did not comply. Under TANF, the poor are no longer “entitled” to state and federal cash assistance, and the federal government's commitment to match state spending on welfare caseloads ended.

TANF brought with it dire warnings of catastrophe. A widely cited report from the Urban Institute, a Washington policy think tank, predicted that welfare reform would push 1.1 million children into poverty. Two high-ranking Clinton appointees, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned in protest . . .

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