Columnist Clare Higgins: Repairing the social safety net

Published: 11/25/2018 9:01:53 AM

I love Thanksgiving. It’s the uniquely United States of America holiday; made a national day of thanks by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a devastating Civil War.

It is a time when families come together, and friends come together as family. Community members join together to feed people who have nowhere to go, on a day we do our best not to be separated by region, religion or politics.

There is a lot to be thankful for in this country, but we still have much more to do. In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people —whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth — is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed and insecure.”

His words are still true today. Monte’s March to raise money for the Food Bank drew attention to the 223,821 people in western Massachusetts who are ill-fed. The Western Mass Network to End Homelessness issued a report telling us that 2,899 people in our region had no home on the cold January night when a count was taken. While the world is awash in clothing from the USA, children here in our region still rely on donations to get winter coats. The Recorder’s Warm the Children program in Greenfield distributed more than 1,000 coats this year. And over 40 percent of Americans say they could not cover an unexpected $400 expense.

All of the G7 countries have poor people. But, as a percentage of our population, the United States has the most. Most troubling is the fact that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more children 17 and under are poor in the United States than in the other six countries. In fact, the poorest Americans are children, and the poorest children are black, followed by Hispanic children, many under six years old.

Why does the richest country in the world have so many people, especially children, in poverty? I think it’s pretty simple. Those other countries invest in their social infrastructure. They fund universal health care; income supports like welfare, disability, unemployment and social-security payments; and education. These expenditures all reduce poverty and increase social stability. The U.S. is second to last in this kind of spending, trailed only by Canada (when measured as a percentage of GDP).

However, we are number one in dependence on private funding for our social safety net, way ahead of all our peers. Many of us have a negative reaction to the idea of entitlements, unless they benefit us. Social Security and Medicare are the good entitlements. Welfare, Medicaid and food stamps are viewed as dispensable because they are used by people whom many have judged to be undeserving. Since the Reagan era, the Republican Party philosophy is that private charity is the way to help the undeserving poor.

The 2017 Republican tax cut law has made this situation much worse. Revenues will have dropped to 16.5 percent of GDP by 2019, from 26.02 percent in 2016. We will need to borrow over a trillion dollars next year to pay the bills, since tax receipts won’t cover them. 

What is the Republican solution? When tax cuts cause deficits to balloon, then we should cut the social safety net, of course! This has been the solution since the days of Reaganomics.

When the public investment in the safety net goes down, there is no assurance that private charitable contributions will increase. Last year’s tax cut law makes it likely that charitable giving will actually go down as well, according to Indiana University School of Philanthropy. They estimate that charitable giving will drop between $5-21 billion per year (1.7-6.8 percent of giving from individuals). The primary cause is the number of tax filers that itemize deductions will drop from 37 million to about 16 million in 2018, due to the increase of the standard deduction.

In Hampshire and Franklin counties, nonprofits depend on the generosity of our big-hearted neighbors and friends. And people are incredibly generous. But all of the fundraising that we do cannot possibly make up for cuts to federal safety net programs.  

Franklin Delano Roosevelt began weaving the modern safety net. His vice president, later President Harry Truman, accepted it as a given fact in 1946, when talking about the national Community Chest campaign: “This Government, through its public welfare program, has long since accepted its responsibility to see that no citizen need face hunger, unemployment or a destitute old age.” Sadly, that truth is no longer the belief of the current president and many GOP elected officials. 

Thanks to all of you who donate to the many nonprofits in the region as you work to change policy at the state and national level. Our ill-fed, ill-housed and insecure neighbors and friends are counting on all of us to repair the net. 

Clare Higgins, of Northampton, a former mayor of the city, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Pioneer Valley. She can be reached at

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