United States Social Policies And Their Impact On The Working Poor Of America

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According to the London School of Economics and Political Science, social policies address “…how states and societies respond to global challenges … of poverty, migration and globalisation.” (London School of Economics and Political Science, n.d.). The United States, while being a massive global power, is home to approximately 38 million of people living in or below the poverty level (approximately 11.8% of the U.S. Population) (US Census Bureau, 2019). The poverty threshold, as of 2019, is $12, 490 for an individual; it is $25,750 for a family of four (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, n.d.). There are programs that help serve America’s poor, including the following the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a type of cash assistance program (Barusch, 2018). However, these social policies are not helping America’s working poor, and are instead punishing those living below the poverty level. Resentment towards those who use social programs exists in society, despite being designed to help those living in impoverished conditions. Stephanie Land, author of Maid, details the criticism and prejudice she faced while struggling to make ends meet, and care for herself and her child.

Restrictions placed on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) are stringent at best, as they offer aid under limited circumstances. Participants are often required to jump through many hoops, including frequent recertifications, to maintain the assistance they need. States are left to administer many of the programs, with application paperwork being extremely long and detailed. Mistakes in applications result in an immediate denial in benefits and attempts to correct mistakes leave applicants frustrated. As reported by the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, individuals requesting assistance reported that they often faced issues with the agency (HRA) misplacing documents. Furthermore, long wait times were also problematic when trying to obtain assistance from such programs (Gotbaum, 2008). In addition to bureaucratic issues, there exists a certain social stigma associated with receiving help from these programs. Many believe that poverty exists because the poor are lazy, lack self-control (Barusch, 2018). Many also believe that people do not work to remain on welfare program, despite SNAP and TANF impose work requirements to continue eligibility (Barusch, 2018). Indeed, Ms. Land pointed out multiple instances of this, facing harsh judgement from strangers and acquaintances alike. A man called out “you’re welcome” after he noticed she paid for her groceries with her EBT card. She noted that while waiting in line, the man had been shaking his head in annoyance and sighing loudly when Ms. Land ran into an unexpected issue (Land, 2018). Attitudes like this contribute to a toxic culture, where the poor are forced under constantly scrutiny and discrimination. They are often made to feel inferior for simply using the help that exists for this sole purpose – to help. State legislators have also introduced ideas to drug test recipients of social services, adding to their humiliation (Barusch, 2018), contributing to an idea that the poor are all drug-addicted, inferior people who do not deserve help.

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To be eligible to receive SNAP benefits in New York State, a person has a monthly gross income limit of $1,354. A family of four has a monthly gross income limit of $2,790. The maximum amount that a one-person household can receive from SNAP is $194; a family of four is allowed a maximum of $649 (NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, 2019). However, these amounts are simply the maximum amount – the amount of received from SNAP varies depending on the net income of the household, which includes certain deductions. Eligible recipients are expected to contribute 30% of this net income towards food, thus decreasing the allotment by $3 for every $10 increase to net income (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018). Participants are required to work unless there are exemptions for those physically or mentally unable to work. This current system does not consider certain matters, such as geographic difference to food prices. The limits on gross monthly income significantly affects the lifestyle of a family, impacting the type of housing they can afford, especially in areas that have high cost of living. After paying for food and shelter, there is even less money left to pay for necessities, such as clothing, utilities, and transportation. Furthermore, most local state offices that administer benefits are open only during business hours, which would significantly cut into work hours for low-income households. This poses a risk of wage loss in the best-case scenario, and job loss in the worst-case. Ms. Land points out that she felt shamed when others in her community commented on her using SNAP benefits, though they had no idea that she lost wages to apply for assistance (Land, 2018).

Similarly, there are certain requirements that a low-income household must meet to be eligible for TANF. Federal laws stipulate that adults must participate in work-related activities, such as unsubsidized employment, vocational education, job search or community service programs (Barusch, 2018). Participants are required to engage in work activities for 20 hours a week to 35 hours a week, for single parent households to two-parent households, respectively (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018). The allotment of TANF varies, as it is administered as a block grant to states (Barusch, 2018). Benefit levels remain low, and do not provide enough money for families to lift them above half of the poverty line (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 2018). There are also federals laws limiting poor families from receiving TANF assistance beyond 60 months from federal funds. States can choose to impose shorter limits, or be supported by state funds (Barusch, 2018). Imposing such limits on impoverished families, in addition to not providing adequate benefit amounts to assist with rising costs of living, contributes to continuation of the poverty cycle.

Criticism for these social programs came from the idea that recipients were abusing tax-payer dollars. Furthermore, there is also a widespread belief that programs such as SNAP and TANF promote dependence, and created permanently poor individuals (Barusch, 2018). However, SNAP fraud is extremely rare, and its administrators continuously work towards combating fraud (U.S. Department of Agriculture, n.d.). Cash benefits distributed by TANF are significantly below the threshold of the poverty level. People between the ages of 16 and 59 must also be working to be eligible to receive SNAP benefits (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018). The difficulty of maintaining a life while receiving assistance from welfare programs arguably creates generations of impoverished Americans, because these programs simply do not do enough to lift the working poor out of poverty. Living in poverty also can lead to poor health outcomes (World Health Organization, 2010), as well exposure to homelessness and violence to a greater degree (Barusch, 2018). Those living in poverty often prefer or seek instant gratification, an adaptation to a life that provides very few pleasures (Barusch, 2018). This leads to lack of future planning, making individuals and families more susceptible to financial emergencies. These social policies do not do enough to eliminate poverty. However, part of the problem also lies with very low wages. Often, low-income families are working extremely hard for very little pay (Land, 2018). Ms. Land pointed out that people rarely knew what she was going through, expecting her to just do better to provide for herself and child, when in fact, she was working and taking college courses. A certain level of empathy and understanding are required to address the blatant discrimination that the working poor struggle with constantly. Additionally, families that may truly be struggling may hesitate to ask for help, as to not face the constant humiliation from society, peers and professionals alike.

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