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June 4, 2012
This article first appeared June 4, 2012 in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
by Stephanie Hogenson, CDF-Minnesota Outreach Specialist
We are approaching a critical moment: resources are tight, needs are increasing, and people are hurting. Legislators and leaders will have to make tough calls.
Just look at the situation in Minnesota. The cost of basic needs in Minnesota for a family of four is $58,363 per year, which requires a wage of $14.03 per hour for two workers. With 49 percent of jobs in Minnesota paying average wages lower than that, there are many families who struggle to fill the gap between their low wages and basic needs.
Yet the public often does not recognize the benefits of federal programs like Child Care Assistance, federal food plans, and health care programs to all families and to the entire economy. As a result, work support programs and their recipients are too often the victims of endless criticism and are first on the budget chopping block—with unfortunate consequences.
To respond to these critics, members of Congress and their staffs looking to defend these programs should consider five reasons why everyone should value work support programs.
First, at some point in nearly every American’s life, he or she is the recipient of help from at least one public program. Surprisingly, many are unaware of how they benefit. In her book The Submerged State, Suzanne Mettler concludes that this lack of awareness by the general public undermines public opinion of social programs. According to a survey reported by Mettler, 57 percent of 1,400 Americans polled said they had never “used a government social program.” Yet when offered a list of 21 social programs, 94 percent of those who had denied using social programs said they had benefitted from one of the programs on the list.
People on work support programs aren’t “those people.” They are average Americans, who at one point or another are unemployed or earning low wages and turn to work support programs to meet basic needs.
Second, work support programs stimulate the economy and create jobs, especially during economic turbulence. Each year billions of federal dollars flow into state and local economies in the form of food benefits, child care subsidies, health care payments, and energy assistance grants. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that every $1 spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) generates nearly twice ($1.80) that in economic activity. In addition, a report by the Center for American Progress found that approximately a million workers were employed in 2011 because of SNAP.
This economic stimulus is more important during economic recessions when people have less to spend and rely on work support programs during times of lower earnings or unemployment.
A third reason to value work support programs is how they help businesses. Benefits are spent at local grocery stores, child care providers, utility companies, and clinics—they affect the bottom line for both large and small businesses.
Public programs also subsidize wages by providing help with work expenses. This includes child care, which many low wage workers can’t afford on their own. Without this support, some of these individuals would not be able to work. Some businesses recognize this explicitly by funding outreach and enrollment efforts for public programs, such as the Wal-Mart Foundation’s initiatives to increase enrollment in SNAP. But too few take these steps.
Fourth, children are the primary beneficiaries of work support programs. Research shows that economic stability is a top indicator of child well-being and future productivity. For example, a grant from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which on average is around $300 annually, can have positive effects on a child’s cognitive, social, and behavioral development. Better outcomes for children in these areas improve a child’s chance of ending the cycle of generational poverty and lead to a more prosperous future for everyone.
Fifth, work support programs are smart, relatively small investments that can prevent the need for larger expenditures if provided before a small problem becomes a catastrophe. People with health insurance – and especially children - are more likely to receive preventive services and therefore less likely to rely on more expensive, emergency care. Children receiving high quality child care do better academically through high school. These results and many others demonstrate that the benefits of addressing needs early through work support programs far outweigh the high costs of remedial, emergency services.
Work support programs do “work.”
There are, however, many ways that the programs can improve. These include streamlining access, fully funding block granted programs (child care assistance, energy assistance, and housing assistance), and removing barriers to participation such as burdensome paperwork, lack of awareness of eligibility, and stigma.
But to improve the programs and continue to provide stability to many hard working families, everyone must first recognize that work support programs really do benefit families, communities, and the economy.
Learn more about CDF-MN's project, Bridge to Benefits project that linnks families to public work support programs and tax benefits. Also see if you or someone else may be eligible for public work support programs.