Behind the Numbers - Weaving a Better Net

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Weaving a Better Net

150 billion: annual public and private expenditures for social service programs.

To truly help low-income families, policymakers should focus on local social service delivery

-Scott W. Allard

Debate about policy responses to the current recession offers an opportunity to reflect upon how the safety net helps low income Americans and how we might strengthen it. Popular impressions of assistance often are of welfare cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) or food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program). These important programs account for only a small portion of safety net spending, though. Today's safety net delivers much more assistance through social service programs that support efforts to find and keep a job, cope with job loss, care for children, or address various health, substance abuse, and mental health problems. While we spent roughly $50 billion on TANF and SNAP in 2008, in my recent book Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State I estimate that we spend $150 billion each year on social service programs. The disconnect between popular conceptions and the reality of safety net assistance not only distorts political rhetoric and policy debate, it leads us to look past important structural features of the safety net that impede our ability to successfully deliver programs of assistance.
Inherent Localness of the Safety Net

Unlike cash assistance, most social service programs cannot be delivered to clients in their homes, relying instead on local agencies to provide assistance at the street-level. Because the capacity of local social service organizations varies by region, city, and town, the American safety net actually is a conglomeration of tens of thousands of unique local safety nets. This makes our safety net responsive to local needs and preferences, but it also inhibits efforts to coordinate programs, minimize duplication, or respond swiftly to widespread increases in poverty or changes in the economy.

Moreover, local variation can lead to safety net assistance that is inaccessible to the poor. For Out of Reach, I interviewed nearly 1,500 public and nonprofit service organizations in metropolitan Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. I found high-poverty neighborhoods (poverty rate over 20 percent) to have about one-third as much access to a variety of social services as low-poverty neighborhoods (poverty rate less than 10 percent).

Why are there fewer service providers in or near high-poverty areas? Perhaps first and foremost, high-poverty communities often lack quality, affordable office space. Location also may be determined by a need to be close to a trained workforce, program partners, fee-paying clients, donors, and volunteers. Some agencies may want to distance clients from their home neighborhoods to preserve anonymity and protect from the stigma associated with seeking help.

A lack of access to service programs, however, is likely to lead to lower program take-up, failure to follow through on referrals, and higher rates of program attrition. Greater distances means more difficult commutes and less information about available programs. Simply put, inadequate access to service providers can be tantamount to being denied assistance in the current safety net.

Safety net programs are also less predictable sources of support than is typically understood, and agencies are most vulnerable right at the moment when stable support is most necessary. Government revenues, private endowments, and charitable giving decline during economic downturns. About 40 percent of service providers I interviewed reported decreases in at least one of five key funding sources in the years following the recession that began in 2001. Given the severity of today's economic conditions, we should expect the percentage of agencies reporting lost funds today to be much higher.

Less reliable revenue flows generally lead to less predictable services. Seven out of ten government and nonprofit service agencies that reported a recent decrease in funding at the time of my interviews also reported reducing staff levels, the range of services offered, numbers of clients served, or even temporarily closing the facility.
Moving Forward

The success of recently proposed federal strategies for reducing poverty ultimately rest on the strength of local nonprofit service organizations. For example, for transitional job and employment training programs to be effective they should be located within reasonable commuting distances of low-skill job-seekers. Effects of programs intended to strengthen parenting and engage non-custodial fathers will likely vary according to their availability in neighborhoods where needs are greatest. Accomplishments of President Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will rest on the strength and sustainability of local organizations. Likewise, neighborhood investment through programs like the Promise Neighborhoods initiative will yield results only where there is adequate nonprofit service delivery infrastructure.

By ensuring local service providers are accessible and stable sources of support, we can offer better help to those in need and help the country emerge quickly from the economic challenges ahead.