Spotlight Exclusives

When a Job Isn۪t Enough: A Safety Net for the Working Poor

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For much of the last decade, policymakers have focused on a “work first” safety net that rewards those who have jobs and creates incentives for the unemployed to rejoin the workforce.  Unfortunately, the grim realities accompanying the Great Recession are beginning to underscore considerable gaps in this approach.

In fact, all of the attention on “work first” policies has left policymakers without the tools to help the most vulnerable Americans during a time of unprecedented hardship. While congressional extensions of unemployment benefits and aid to states and localities to avert layoffs of public employees have filled some of the gaps during the last two years, we need to do more to truly help the worst off.

Work supports are a vital piece of the safety net. Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), housing assistance, and childcare assistance all help families make up the difference between low wages and increasing everyday costs.

But with millions of Americans struggling to find jobs, these work first supports aren۪t enough. With the average length of unemployment at 40 weeks in February of 2012, it has become clear that we need more tools to help those who are in need but won۪t be able to reenter the labor force anytime soon.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. has never had a comprehensive system covering all vulnerable groups equally, including children, unemployed and underemployed adults, disabled individuals, and the elderly. In general, recognition of groups needing safety net coverage has expanded over time, but so have efforts to move the “employable” individuals among these groups into jobs and full-time work as quickly as possible.  

To be truly effective, our approach to income support must be expansive enough to cover three different categories of citizens who are among the most affected by the Great Recession.

The first are the low-wage workers who still have jobs but cannot make ends meet. The second group is the now long-term unemployed. This includes some of the “new poor”formerly employed people of working age who have used up their assets, maxed out their credit capacity, and may be losing their homes. The third category includes formerly middle-class workers who are still working, but whose wages and benefits have not kept pace with increasing expenses such as health care and housing. These workers may also be providing support for their unemployed and/or struggling children and grandchildren who have not gotten a foothold in the economy.

One avenue for helping all of these individuals is through existing but undersubscribed programs. People struggling to take care of themselves and their families are not always aware of all of the programs for which they are eligible. Often, they also view the process of applying for benefits as too complicated and time-consuming, or assume it will be humiliating.

In response, new models of connecting people eligible for assistance with income support programs have emerged across the country, most in the form of “work supports.” Some models, however, apply to everyone, including people who want to work but who cannot find jobs.  

The goal of these alternative supports is to increase successful applications for various types of assistance. This includes both those contingent on work, such as the EITC, and those not, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The organizations providing these connector services are community-based nonprofits, employer-based nonprofits, and public workforce service agencies. These groups hope to reach out to people who are not receiving benefits and do not know that they might qualify for assistance.

There are several lessons that can be gleaned from these organizations۪ work to help others model their success. They include:

    •    Make it easy: put services in the places and at the times that are convenient and provide walk-in access, minimal waiting, and privacy

    •    Be consumer-oriented: offer a range of services, avoid identification with “welfare,” keep the processes simple, respond to immediate needs, and limit the number of trips for individuals and “hand-offs” to different staff

    •    Streamline access: know what public agencies require, screen individuals for these requirements, and provide “front-end” services for public agencies under agreements whenever possible, so individuals do not have to make these connections themselves

    •    Find ways to stay in regular contact: as individual circumstances change over time, this will help ensure the continuity of benefits and opportunities to take advantage of additional benefits. It may also help connect individuals with better work opportunities in the future

Increasing the number of poor and near-poor people who have access to benefits for which they are eligible does not expand the safety net. But, it۪s a step in the right direction.

To print a PDF version of this document click here.

Kay Sherwood is an independent consultant to government organizations, nonprofit organizations, and foundations. She authored a policy brief for MDRC, “Helping Low-Wage Workers Access Work Supports.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.  If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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