Congress Takes a New Look at the Safety Net
What may change to protect older, needy Americans
The first two federal safety net programs, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance, will turn 65 next year. This historic milestone is being preceded by a new focus from the new Congress on how the government’s safety net programs are performing and what changes might be needed to improve them.
Safety net programs have evolved over time, from Head Start in 1964 to Supplemental Security Income in 1972 to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, with its expansion of Medicaid to approximately 15 million people. And social safety net programs have done a lot of good over time. For example, Social Security has lifted an estimated 27 million people out of poverty.
4 Disturbing Realities About the Federal Safety Net
However, against this backdrop are some more disturbing realities.
First, many eligible Americans, especially older adults, are not receiving safety net benefits to which they are entitled. For example, the National Council on Aging estimates that almost 60 percent of older Americans eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as food stamps) aren’t enrolled.
Access to federal benefits is especially challenging for older women, who represent nearly two-thirds of all people 65 and older living in poverty. Certain safety net programs have shown a bias against women regarding benefits and coverage by considering work history and salary history; historically, women have been more likely to be unpaid caregivers and to have lower salaries than men. Fixing this type of bias is a prime example of potential safety net reform.
Second, safety net program benefits are not keeping up with the need. For example, Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a program for low-income older adults and people with disabilities, has only seen minimal benefit increases since it was created nearly 50 years ago. And it has been years since new low-income housing subsidies were adjusted for inflation.
Third, the government’s measurement of what constitutes poverty for safety net programs, especially poverty of older adults, is grossly outdated. This results in many more older Americans living in poverty than the federal guidelines show. Both the Elder Economic Security Standard™ Index and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy’s Senior Financial Stability Index show that millions of older adults are struggling to meet their monthly expenses, even though they don’t live below the federal poverty line.
Finally, out-of-pocket health care costs are not sustainable for some poorer, older adults in the Medicare program, leaving many with hard choices between paying for food or rent.
How Congress May Stitch the Safety Net
Already in the short time that the 116 Congress has been in session, however, there have been a variety of legislative responses to address how to modernize and improve the social safety net programs.
One factor that might be leading to this new activity is a political reality identified by Rachel Moskowitz in the most recent edition of Generations, the American Society on Aging’s academic journal. She notes the strong degree of support among people of all ages for the idea that the federal government has responsibility for providing benefits to older adults in need.
In 2016, she wrote, more than 80 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that providing benefits to needy older adults either definitely or probably should be the responsibility of government. Two-thirds also agreed that more, or much more, should be spent to accomplish this, even with trade-offs such as higher taxes.
One of the most significant safety net bills introduced in the new Congress is the Social Security 2100 Act. Among its key features:
- Increase benefits across the board, equivalent to about 2 percent for the average Social Security benefit
- Change the annual cost of living adjustment to reflect the fact that way older Americans really spend (see this Next Avenue article on that)
- Increase the Social Security minimum monthly benefit to ensure workers with years of low earnings do not retire into poverty
- Lower federal income taxes on Social Security benefits for approximately 12 million middle-income adults and raise taxes on the wealthy
In addition, bills are being introduced to expand Medicare coverage. One of the most talked about of these is Medicare for All. Others would lower the age to 50 to help people over that age get good health coverage.
Other ways Congress could close the modern-day holes in the safety net:
- Pass the Social Security Caregivers Credit Act to provide eligible caregivers with up to 60 months of Social Security work credits, increasing later benefits
- Continue to support Medicaid expansion and abandon efforts to repeal that part of the ACA
- Provide sufficient funding for federal programs supporting nonprofits which aim to provide more people in need with access to benefits
- Work toward capping out-of-pocket costs under Medicare
- Add dental, vision and hearing coverage to original Medicare
- Strengthen provisions in the Older Americans Act to ensure its programs and services reach the elderly in the greatest economic need
- Pass legislation to modernize the federal poverty index, using the Supplemental Poverty Measure instead of the current index
- Increase funding for key federal housing programs including Section 202, Section 8 and the Community Development Block Grant
The dynamics of this new Congress — with a record number of women, more than 100 newly-elected members on both sides and a push toward progressive policies — may well strengthen the safety net. That way, public policy will better protect the poorest Americans.