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Economist Robert M. Greenstein Discusses Social Safety Net Programs at IOP Forum

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Founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Robert M. Greenstein ’67 discussed the relative merits of social safety net programs during the annual Godkin Lecture at the Harvard Institute of Politics on Tuesday.

Jason Furman, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, moderated the forum. The Kennedy School has hosted the Godkin Lecture series annually since 1903, honoring Edwin L. Godkin, founder of liberal magazine the Nation.

Greenstein began the talk by outlining the two main types of programs used to address poverty. He said that targeted programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are restricted to those in specific income brackets while universal programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, are available to all Americans.

Greenstein pointed to a “long-standing narrative” that targeted programs are more often cut or eliminated, reciting an adage that “programs for the poor are poor programs.”

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“The narrative also holds that universal programs — those that go all the way to the top of the income scale — do much better in the political sphere,” he said.

Greenstein said targeted programs have actually seen significant annual funding increases but added social safety net programs are often inaccessible to the very people they aim to support.

“In every year from 2011 through 2019, fewer than 30 percent of the unemployed received benefits in an average month, which is many fewer than several decades ago,” he said. “Many of the unemployed actually are ineligible for unemployment insurance.”

Greenstein noted, though, that social safety programs have expanded their reach in recent decades. In 2019, government benefits other than health insurance kept 47 percent of Americans who would otherwise be poor out of poverty, compared to only 9 percent in 1970, according to Greenstein.

Asked how policymakers can find a balance between sponsoring targeted and universal programs, Greenstein cited the cost associated with maintaining universal programs.

“If you're in a country that has the kind of resistance to raising taxes that we do in the United States, it makes it really hard to go much farther in a universal program direction,” he said.

Despite difficulties in securing funding and ensuring social safety net programs are accessible to those who need them, Greenstein pointed to progress made under the Biden administration to improve internet access and eliminate obstacles to applying to social welfare programs.

“I want to be clear,” Greenstein said, “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna here. Even with this progress, we have a long way to go.”

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