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Work, Work Supports, and Safety Nets: Reducing the Burden of Low-Incomes in America

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Publication Date: October 2007

Publisher(s): Economic Policy Institute

Author(s): Jared Bernstein

Topic: Social conditions (Public welfare and social services)

Type: Brief


In a rich, advanced economy like the United States, poverty should be viewed as an aberration. To the extent that poverty exists--and this briefing paper defines poverty more broadly than the official method--it is largely a failure either of the market or of social policy. That is, the market may fail to produce enough jobs or income for those willing and able to work.

Policies designed to support work may fail to adequately subsidize the earnings of those whose low wages, low productivity, or both, leave them with earnings too low to meet their needs. The safety net may also fail to catch those who are unable to work, due to their own personal limitations or disabilities. Those who are fully able yet unwilling to work may well be self-selected into poverty, but most of the low-income population does not fit into that category. Most families want to avail themselves of the best opportunities to raise their own living standards and their children's life prospects. The U.S. economy and system of social welfare must ensure that they are able to do so.

Thus, the aim of this briefing paper is to describe an agenda of social welfare policies that accomplishes certain goals. Along with setting goals, the nation needs to both track its progress, and motivate the political system to undertake these goals. To do so, this paper calls for reforming and refining the way the United States measures poverty and for setting concrete targets to reduce the share of the population whose income puts them under the updated poverty thresholds.