In politics, a “safety net” – also known as a “social safety net” – refers to the welfare programs that are designed to provide benefits to low-income or elderly Americans.
Safety net is generally a positive term – people who are opposed to welfare programs usually refer to them as entitlement programs.
Of course, safety nets are not unique to America. The World Bank estimates that about 36 percent of very poor people around the world have escaped poverty because of social safety nets.
Safety nets are supposed to protect people from experiencing the most devastating consequences of job loss, economic downturns, disability, or other difficulties. They are also designed to shield children from the hardships associated with extreme poverty and give those children the chance at a better life than their parents had.
Critiques of safety net programs tend to complain that welfare drains the government’s resources and discourages Americans from working. In 2021, for example, the Wall Street Journal blasted President Biden’s “plan for an entitlement society.” The newspaper warned that “for the first time in history, more than half of all Americans would be on the dole.”
A few years earlier, the Cato Society warned that:
There can be no long‐term reduction in the national debt without addressing these massive entitlement programs. Social Security now costs nearly $1 trillion per year, and Medicare more than $700 billion. Those two programs alone account for some 40 percent of all federal spending. Congress can and should slash away at discretionary spending all it wants, but without entitlement reform, the debt will continue to grow.
Supporters of Biden’s program argue that social spending is an important tool needed to help fix systemic inequalities; they also point out that social welfare programs date back at least as far as President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argued that:
The United States has long been an entitlement society, with the government operating a variety of social insurance programs to lessen hardship. That was the idea behind Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and the original child tax credit. But while we spend a lot of money on our social safety net, it has too many holes. We have one of the highest rates of child poverty among industrialized democracies — nearly double those in Canada, Germany and France.
The stereotype is generally that Democrats favor increasing the social safety net while Republicans want to slash entitlement programs. After all, the ACA, more widely known as Obamacare, has been called America’s fifth entitlement and is credited to the Democratic president Barack Obama.
At the same time, this is an oversimplification. Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat, was widely credited with ending welfare as we know it when he pushed through a sweeping welfare reform bill in 1996.
Clinton himself acknowledged that there were problems with the law, saying, “Some parts of this bill still go too far. This bill still cuts deeper than it should in nutritional assistance, mostly for working families with children.”