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Old Assumptions, New Realities

May 7, 2014 01:00 PM

The way Americans live and work has changed significantly since the creation of the Social Security Administration in 1935, but U.S. social welfare policy has failed to keep up with these changes. The model of the male breadwinner-led nuclear family has given way to diverse and often complex family structures, more women in the workplace, and nontraditional job arrangements. Old Assumptions, New Realities by Robert D. Plotnick, Marcia K. Meyers, and Jennifer Romich, identifies the tensions between twentieth-century social policy and twenty-first-century realities for working Americans and offers promising new reforms for ensuring social and economic security. Old Assumptions, New Realities, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, picks up where current policies leave off by examining what’s not working, why, and how the safety net can be redesigned to work better.

plotnick_bob_fullsizeRobert D. Plotnick is Professor of Public Affairs and Associate Dean of the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs. He directed the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology from 1997-02 and was the founding director of UW’s Population Leadership Program. Plotnick’s research addresses American poverty, income inequality, income support policy, and related social policy issues. His current research, in collaboration with Washington State’s Division of Child Support, is using field experiments to test the effectiveness of new approaches to collecting support payments. Plotnick serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and as a reviewer for many other academic journals as well as academic presses and grant-making organizations.

2014_04_11_jennie_romich_croppedJennifer Romich is an Associate Professor of Social Welfare at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs. Romich studies resources and economic in families, with a particular emphasis on low income workers, household budgets and families’ interactions with public policy. Her recent poverty-related projects include ongoing research into effective marginal tax rates created by means-tested benefit schedules and the tax system; a mixed-methods investigation of income of families involved with the child welfare system; and an evaluation of the City of Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance. Romich is the Director of the West Coast Poverty Center and was recently appointed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Family Self-Sufficiency Research Scholars Network.

marcia_meyersMarcia K. Meyers is the Narramore Scholar and Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs, and the founding director of the West Coast Poverty Center. Her current research projects examine variation in the “package” of social assistance available to low income families in the U.S. and the impact of U.S. state policy regimes on economic security and inequality, women’s labor force participation and child care arrangements. She has also conducted extensive cross-national comparative research on social and family policy.

In the early days of the West Coast Poverty Center, Plotnick, Meyers, and Romich were brainstorming ideas for an upcoming conference that would address emerging challenges in U.S. social policy. As they reflected on the 75th anniversary of the passage of the original Social Security Act (SSA), they were struck by the gap between the assumptions of that period and the social, economic, and demographic realities of today. Using this as inspiration, they framed an important question to top scholars in key policy fields: How well do the policy and organizational structures that have been built over the past 75 years on the foundation of the SSA fit current social welfare challenges? The book began to unfold during the early years of the now-labeled Great Recession, which added urgency to their search for effective policy approaches.

“What resulted was chapters that document enormous change in America’s demographic, economic, social, and policy realities since Congress enacted the SSA,” says Plotnick. “The various authors we approached for the book convincingly argue that the new realities are at odds with most of the old assumptions about economic and social arrangements that motivated the Act and many of the policies that have been built on its foundation.” The gap between old assumptions and new realities may be a fundamental reason why current social, health, income support, employment, asset building and family policies often fail to ensure the economic security of working-age adults and their children.

Romich agreed, saying that “to meet the 21st century’s challenges of ensuring economic security for working age families, it follows that the nation needs either to better align the assumptions that undergird specific social policies with today’s realities or alternatively, to adopt policies that change the new realities in ways that enhance economic security.” The recent Great Recession and inadequacy of existing federal and state policies to prevent or respond to major economic and social dislocations give greater urgency to addressing these challenges.

“Policy makers should be careful not only about the content but about the design of social policies because, once in place, these policy structures shape and constrain future policy choices,” says Meyers. “With rare exceptions, such as the passage of the SSA, policy builds incrementally in response to new problems and demands. Politically expedient policy solutions for the short term may hamper the capacity of policy makers to craft responsive policies over the longer term.”

One of the most significant gaps in the original SSA was the failure to include national policy addressing the economic security of able-bodied working-age adults and their families. The lack of legislative authority and bureaucratic capacity has hampered development of labor market and employment policies to support American workers and protect family income during economic crises. “As Michael Stoll documents, changes in the US and global economies have increased the demand for higher skilled workers and weakened the bargaining power of US workers,” says Romich. “Our public educational and workforce development programs have failed to keep pace with these changes, depressing wages and increasing employment insecurity for working-age adults. Paul Osterman highlights another dimension of this gap – the weaknesses of US policies to regulate and influence the demand for labor and improve job quality.”

Plotnick notes that one of the gaps in the SSA is the lack of provisions for women in the workforce. Enacted during a time when most women with children either did not work or worked part-time, the SSA had no provisions or subsidies for paid sick, maternity, or family leave, nor child care or pre-kindergarten education. “Nor did it create child or family allowances that much of Europe uses to help offset the costs of raising children,” he says. “As Jody Heymann and Alison Earle note in their chapter, the lack of a national policy structure for these benefits continues to leave US working parents with economic and time burdens far in excess of their counterparts in other rich countries.”

With the passage of the SSA, the federal government played a limited role in social and health policy. Without a strong, centrally organized bureaucratic structure for implementing social welfare policy, individual programs expanded in size, scope, and organizational complexity. “Jodi Sandfort argues that the set of programs that has been cobbled together over the past 75 years has not produced a coherent safety net or system of social provision,” says Meyers. “Instead, each policy arena—cash assistance, tax credits, employment services, health care, and others—tended to develop its own institutional structure to implement its programs without necessarily considering how that structure interacted with those in other arenas.” Today’s fragmented delivery systems for social programs fail to provide convenient, accessible services to clients, especially those who are employed, and particularly place extra burdens on low-income families.

“Scott Allard points out that social service programs have become the primary mode for delivering assistance to families near and below the poverty line,” says Plotnick. “His analysis of the realities of today’s local service-based safety net shows that though the public sector finances most community social services, delivery of these services is fragmented across hundreds of different programs, thousands of federal, state, and local agencies, and tens of thousands of local secular and faith-based nonprofit organizations.” Plotnick notes that the nation’s reliance upon a mix of local government and nonprofit organizations for delivering services makes it difficult to coordinate activity and target resources efficiently.

Ultimately, Old Assumptions, New Realities shows that the economic security of America’s working families is at risk due to an outdated social welfare policy system. Says Meyers: “The 1935 Social Security Act and its incremental, but inadequate extensions require substantial reforms that acknowledge women’s labor force participation, modern lifespans and family structure, and the interconnected global economy.”


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