Why the Safety Net Is Good Economic Policy

Economic research illustrates that our safety net reduces poverty and promotes mobility.

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Republicans in the House of Representatives released a report in February that relies on a misleading and incomplete review of social-science literature to paint the nation’s anti-poverty programs as largely ineffectual and counterproductive. The House Budget Committee report purports to be an evidence-based analysis of the effectiveness of the safety net programs that emerged as a result of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps; Medicare; Medicaid; Head Start; and expanded Social Security. Unfortunately, the review is so riddled with inaccuracies that many of the leading academics cited in it have publicly accused Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, of misrepresenting their work. In reality, there is little evidence to support the report’s conclusion that federal programs exacerbate poverty by creating disincentives for people to work.

The report argues that anti-poverty programs reduce labor-force participation by discouraging work, dooming program participants to a life of poverty. As Rep. Ryan has previously stated, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” The report attempts to back up this assertion with social-science research, but it is not the unbiased, evidenced-based review that it claims to be.

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