Understanding the Safety Net

Poverty in America. It’s a charged issue.

Opinions about how and why people end up impoverished run a wide gamut. Those opinions greatly impact public policy designed to create a safety net for people.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve debated in the state and the nation if we should (and, if the answer is yes we should, then how should we) support people who fail to thrive in our society.

Understanding Safety Net Services

I find when I talk one-to-one with people, no matter their beliefs, they generally agree that we have an obligation as a society to support the most vulnerable among us: children, people with disabilities and the elderly. They are often appalled to learn that programs for these populations are experiencing cuts and/or are in crisis.

A portion of the population believes that people who are poor are poor because of their failure to have enough drive to better their own position: lazy, shiftless, unmotivated to work, addicted to drugs or alcohol. When folks are seen in this light, there’s little sympathy to give them a hand out – or a hand up. Most often, the stories of people who fit in this category are the ones that we hear about, particularly as reasons to spend less on safety net programs. They get a lot of press, and the stories are told time and again. The amount of press these folks get far exceeds the percentage of the population they represent. No one wants to see their hard-earned money given to people who are bilking the system.

Another portion of the population believes that people who are in the country illegally are using all the resources dedicated to safety net systems.

Telling the Real Story

Few people understand who really needs and uses safety net services.

In Northfield, Minnesota, 17 percent of the population uses Medicaid for health insurance and related supports. That includes the majority of people served by Laura Baker Services Association.

It likely includes some of your neighbors. Perhaps the elderly widow who lives on your block whose Social Security is her only income. See the poverty statistics.

Few people understand the complexity of the issues facing people who live on the financial edges and how challenging or catastrophic an event can be. Where “the system” and those of us who work to support it fail is consistently telling the real story about poverty. We fail to combat those stories that tell only a small portion of the story.

In failing to challenge those stories, we allow those stereotypes to remain. We fail to create communities that look beyond a person’s financial status to what they can contribute to the community. We make assumptions that make it easier for us. We perpetuate the assumptions and stereotypes. We don’t stop long enough to question our own situations (perhaps afraid of how perilous they really might be) or to consider how or why someone else is living on the edge.

What Do We Take for Granted?

We take for granted that our cars will work, or that we will be able to access transportation if there’s a problem with our vehicle.

We take for granted that our health insurance will assist us in covering health issues that arise, or that we have enough money saved to get through a health crisis. We take for granted that health insurance is available, and we hope it’s affordable.

We take for granted that we can pay for child or elder care, allowing us to work when we have children or elders who need our support.

We take for granted that we can find housing that meets our needs, is appropriately cared for and is safe.

We take for granted that we are able to navigate the systems designed to support us and that we will be successful in solving our issues.

We live in a world populated with “shoulds” and “oughts.” We seldom stop to consider the impact of those expectations. We don’t stop to ask how we can help – as a neighbor, as a community member, as a friend. After all, our lives are busy.

The Need for Action

If you’re anything like me, you are tired of the endless need for action, the endless debates and the cries for support. It’s easy to shut your eyes and ears and focus on things you think you can influence.

Today, I encourage you to do two things:

  • Stop for a minute and consider who in your life might be struggling on the edge, unsure of how they will get to work tomorrow, or pay for that doctor or dentist visit, or afford groceries for the week. What can you do to offer a hand?
  • Support disability services and save Medicaid by sharing your story. The passed version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA) makes significant cuts to Medicaid and will result in many negative impacts. Learn more about the issue, and use LBSA’s letter-writing tool to reach out to U.S. Senators. It’s important to let them know how the AHCA impacts you and your family.

Take Action 




About the Author

Sandi Gerdes

Sandi Gerdes, executive director of Laura Baker Services Association, has a 30-year history of leadership in the disabilities community. A longtime advocate for choice, Sandi has developed numerous innovative service programs tailored to the unique needs of the individuals the organization serves.


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