Social Justice Webinar: Social Safety Nets

Thursday, February 23, 2023
Max Whittaker/REUTERS

Harriman Professor of Government & Public Policy, College of William and Mary

Director of Policy, Center for American Progress


President and CEO, Catholic Charities USA

Chris Howard, the Harriman professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary, and Arohi Pathak, director of policy for inclusive economy at the Center for American Progress, discuss policies regarding social safety nets, the extent to which they are alleviating poverty, and their accessibility to Native communities and communities of color in the United States. Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice Webinar Series. This series explores social justice issues and how they shape policy at home and abroad through discourse with members of the faith community. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website,, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Sister Donna Markham with us today to moderate today’s discussion on social safety nets. Sister Donna Markham is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, and the first woman to serve in this role. Throughout her forty-year career, she’s led efforts to reduce poverty and provide for people at risk. At Catholic Charities USA, Sister Donna has focused on advocacy efforts, on affordable housing, integrated health, food and nutrition, immigration, and refugee services, disaster services, and workforce development. She is an Adrian Dominican Sister and board-certified clinical psychologist.

Donna, thank you very much for doing this. I’m going to turn it now over to you for the conversation.

MARKHAM: Thanks, Irina. And it’s my joy to introduce our two principal presenters this afternoon.

First, Chris Howard. Chris Howard has worked at the college of William & Mary since 1993 and is currently the Harriman professor of government and public policy. He specializes in history, politics, and U.S. social policy. Dr. Howard is the author and coeditor of five books, most recently Who Cares? The Social Safety Net in America. He’s also written numerous journal articles and book chapters. He’s a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Scholars Strategy Network, and has won a campus-wide teaching award and an outstanding faculty award from the State of Virginia. Dr. Howard earned his PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thanks for being here, Chris. It’s great to have you.

HOWARD: Thank you.

MARKHAM: And Arohi Pathak. Arohi is the director of policy for the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. She has twenty years of policy experience in social and economic justice on a variety of issues related to family economic security, workforce policy, the social safety net, early care and education, and asset building. Before joining the Center for American Progress, Arohi worked at Prosperity Now, mobilizing community-based organizations to address economic mobility and low income in communities of color, while helping to scale up innovative practices that build long-term and enduring financial security. Her work stretches across all communities of color, including native ones, bringing a lens of racial wealth equity to policy and programmatic solutions. She has worked on federal and state advocacy, focusing on family economic security and workforce issues at the Service Employees International Union, Voices for America’s Children, and People for the American Way Foundation. So welcome, Arohi, it’s great to have you with us too.

PATHAK: Thank you.

MARKHAM: Such impressive presenters. So I’ll just offer a few opening remarks, and then we’ll hear from our presenters. We’re all profoundly aware of the importance of the social determinants of health and wellbeing as foundational for poverty alleviation. Things such as a safe place to live, a job that provides a living wage, a social network, access to health care, et cetera.

And for many of us who work in the social service sector, we recognize the import shift from primarily providing emergency services—such as food, clothing, shelter—to now emphasizing the development of social enterprises, providing for workforce development opportunities, and moving from emergency shelters to permanent supportive housing, to just name an example. We will always need to be providers of the emergency services, but I think the shift is really important in addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. And that balancing is really critical to poverty alleviation strategies. So just to offer that from my perch at Catholic Charities USA, and what we’re involved in every day.

But, Chris, maybe start with you, and just ask you if you could share with us a little bit about what constitutes the social safety net in the United States, and how we compare with other parts of the world in similar ways, OK?


MARKHAM: Thanks.

HOWARD: The usual way among policy experts and academics when they talk about the safety net is they usually equate that with government programs that are targeted at people with low incomes. So Medicaid and public housing would be classic examples. I think the safety net is broader in a couple of ways. One, among the sort of government programs, there are also a number of inclusive government programs/social insurance programs that have substantial effects on people with low incomes. Social Security is the best example. Social Security does more to lift millions of Americans out of poverty than almost any other social program out there. Medicare, and Disability Insurance, and Unemployment Insurance also help a broad range of people, but including people with low incomes. So when I think of the safety net I think of both these targeted programs and the inclusive programs.

Now, that’s sort of what I think of as the public safety net, what government is in charge of. I think of the social safety net more broadly, as including that public safety net—which in many ways is the biggest part of the overall social safety net. But there’s a second part of a charitable safety net that is prominent in a variety of areas, particularly food, medical care, sometimes homelessness as well. And then a third component, what is sometimes called the family safety net, extended relatives and sometimes close friends who can be important, particularly in areas of long-term care, which is often provided uncompensated by family members, and sometimes in housing as well, as people double up because they can’t afford to rent or they can’t afford to buy their homes.

So I think of the safety net as being these sort of three pieces—the public, the charitable, and the family—all of which sort of united about trying to collectively provide for people who are dealing with material hardship. In terms of boundaries, because I’ve certainly got a broad notion here, in my notion of the safety net, I really do think of this as a place to catch people after they’ve fallen on hard times. The kinds of educational and training programs that Sister Donna mentioned I think of as being crucial, but is perhaps, if we continue with metaphors, as either sort of ladders or springboards out of poverty. And that both safety nets and these sort of ladders or springboards are crucial.

In terms of sort of comparing us, just sort of broad brush, to other countries, other affluent democracies, probably three things stand out about the social safety net in this country. One is that we tend to rely more on charities than you will find in a lot of European countries, or Canada, Australia, Japan. A second is within the public safety net we tend to rely more on those programs targeted at people with low incomes. Other countries are more likely to have a national health insurance rather than separate Medicare and Medicaid programs. And, third, just in terms of the impact, our safety net tends to let more people through the cracks, through the holes. That we tend to have higher rates of poverty and need in this country than in other places. And we have, more or less, decided that it’s acceptable to have more hardship than you would find in a number of other affluent democracies.

MARKHAM: Thanks.

Arohi, I’d like to ask you if you can pick up a little bit on that, given the communities that you focus on in your own work. Could you share with us how you see these social safety net programs assisting in poverty alleviation, especially for communities of color and the native communities?

PATHAK: Yes, absolutely. Let me actually put a little bit of context around what I am going to say. So, as Chris mentioned, there’s kind of multiple different ways of looking at safety net programs. I’m very specifically going to focus on the public safety net. So I’m going to be looking at the public programs that catch people when they are struggling with economic precarity, such as if they lose a job or if they have unexpected medical debt or other kind of crisis situations come up.

The one really important thing that I think we need to start off by acknowledging is that poverty is a policy decision. In this country, we’ve made a decision that we’re going to be OK with poverty. And so we have poverty. But that’s not to say that we have not been working on declining poverty. So if you actually look at the last thirty years you’ll see that poverty has declined quite considerably—by something like 59 percent over the last thirty years. And this is because we’ve made some really profound changes through the safety net programs.

On one hand, there are policies like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). I think you’ll all remember in 1996 this was reformed under the Clinton administration. And the reformation of TANF really kind of reduced cash assistance to parents without jobs, and really kind of pushed families to kind of get into the labor force and really start to be more self-sufficient. And on the other hand, while we were reducing cash assistance, we were also putting considerable federal investment into spending that really impacted poverty, such as education, and childcare, and food assistance. The Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Unemployment Insurance, health care, these are just some ways in which the federal government over the last thirty years has really focused on alleviating poverty.

Now, back to your question, Donna, about communities of color. What we find in this country is that communities of color generally do not have the same levels of access to resources that most other communities do. And, as a result, we see higher levels of poverty, higher levels of racial wealth inequity, higher levels of the lack of economic opportunity in those communities. And oftentimes these communities are rural communities where at one point there used to be a manufacturing base, but that has gone away, and there isn’t a big employer or a big jobs program to help people build this economic security. And so they’re kind of just stuck there. Or, in other instances, it’s the policies that put people on tribal reservations in this country, for example, on lands that have no natural resources, are disconnected from infrastructure like roads and cars, and disconnected from economic opportunities.

And so we really do still struggle with poverty. Even though we’ve made enormous strides over the last thirty years, I want to be very clear when I say it is still an issue that impacts us. The social safety net in the country, I think, has done a lot to make sure that the worst of poverty has abated. But we still have a ways to go. There’s still things that we could do to really invest in our people, in our communities, and in the social safety net to ensure that no person in the country goes to bed hungry, or no person goes to bed without having a safe house over their heads, or a safe community to live in.

So I’ll pause there, Donna.

MARKHAM: Thanks. I think one of the questions that comes to me is, you talked about the poverty level, that it’s going down. And I know that we often measure it through the official poverty line as the benchmark. And I’m wondering, Chris, whether you think that’s really an effective way for us to be looking at this.

HOWARD: Yeah. So the decline that Arohi mentioned is hard to see if you use the official poverty line. It’s easier if you use what’s called the supplemental poverty measure, which technically is a more accurate measure and has been reported by the Census Bureau for about the last decade or so. So if you look the official poverty measure, that’ll show you a big drop in elderly poverty in the 1960s and 1970s. If you use the supplemental poverty measure, you’ll see, for instance, a big drop in child poverty over the last thirty-or-so years. So of those two measures, the supplemental measure is the better one, partly because it takes into account the taxes that people pay, partly it takes into account better the sort of geographic cost of living differences. But there are reasons to think that even it may be somewhat understating the amount of distressed out there.

A number of people on this session may be familiar with the ALICE measure from the United Way that tries to capture sort of Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, particularly the working poor. The thresholds they have for what do you need to have a decent life around the country are often a good bit higher than in the supplemental poverty measure, and indicate that even that measure might be understating what you really need to get by around the country. There are also other measures, like food insecurity, and housing cost burden, and uninsurance, where you’ll find many of those people who are below the official poverty line, but a substantial number of them who are somewhat above the poverty line, 150, 200 percent as well. And so if you look at these other measures of need, they don’t always correlate easily or directly with poverty. Many of those people will be below the poverty line, but many of them will be somewhat above that poverty line as well.

MARKHAM: Thanks. That’s helpful.

One of the issues that I think we struggle with on the front lines is that the public safety net is so sensitive to whoever’s in the administration and the government. And so then the charitable sector, with the charitable safety net, we’re either really helped by what’s going on or the administration changes and all of our agencies crash under the burden of trying to pick up where the government pulled out. So in this country, it seems like we’re really—without anything that’s really been structured on a permanent basis—we’re really at the whim of what’s happening in the government, which places vulnerable communities and the charitable sector in really difficult situations. Because we can’t make up for what the government does.

So I’d be interested in either of your reflections on that dynamic, especially maybe Arohi from the front lines.

PATHAK: Yeah. You are so absolutely correct. It’s almost like we don’t have an intentional strategy. Well, we don’t. Our poverty alleviation strategy is really kind of patchwork of different programs that kind of target specific and unique needs. But the one thing that I want to talk about that I think might put some nuance around this is if you look at the pandemic, right? You look at a time that created enormous amounts of economic uncertainty in this country. People lost their jobs. They lost their life savings. Daycares and childcare facilities were closed. Schools were closed. Parents were really struggling to be able to balance work, and childcare, and even having a job.

And the one thing that the Biden administration did that was huge was it put a huge amount of government aid to help Americans weather the effects of the pandemic. It put a lot of money into these same safety net programs that we’re talking about, to expand those programs. Now, the expansions were just temporary but money went into Unemployment Insurance, into SNAP, which is the food stamp program, into health care. There was money that went to—that went out as cash assistance through programs like the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, but also the three economic stimulus payments that everyone got.

All of these collectively really helped people make sure that they had enough money to pay for their utility bills, their rent, their food. If they lost their jobs they didn’t have to use all of their savings. Now, I’m not saying that the Biden investments necessarily impacted everyone the same way. As we all know, there were some people during that pandemic that literally lost their shirts, and are still struggling to recover. And there’s others that were able to weather this a little bit more securely because of the money that the Biden administration put in.

But what I am trying to say is these programs exist for a reason. And the pandemic offers just a perfect example of how when the world literally is on fire the federal government can step in, increase funding to these programs, and really provide a safety net to all of the most vulnerable people. And it did that. And it did that very effectively. And I just want to use one program as an example. It’s the Child Tax Credit. Under the American Rescue Plan, which was one of the first pieces of legislation that the Biden administration passed, the Child Tax Credit was made permanent and it was—I’m sorry—it was expanded and it was made refundable.

And what that did is it made sure that the lowest-income Americans, for the first time, were getting a monthly check that they could use for whatever they needed. And it also made sure that the amount of credit the parents were receiving was actually expanded. So they were getting a little bit more money than they ordinarily would get. And what this did is it alleviated poverty for 2.1 million children, just within the span of one year. It stabilized the finances of more than thirty-six million families. And that includes nearly sixty-two million kids.

And the reason I bring this example up is because the impacts of that are just staggering. When we do it correctly, when we invest in our safety nets correctly, we can see the impact and we can see how they really provide the economic boost not only that families need, but our economy needs to survive, or even be thriving.

The one additional thing I want to say here, and then I will pass it on to Chris, is a lot of the expansion that I just spoke about, a lot of the funding expansions for safety net programs under the American Rescue Plan, these were temporary. They have all expired or are expiring. And, as a result, what we’re going to see now is the people that are still struggling with economic security, that are still struggling to make ends meet, to pay their rent, put food on their table, et cetera will still be struggling with poverty as they have even less government support to help provide some support to them.


HOWARD: Yeah. Just to sort of circle back, Donna, to your point about sort of the safety net varying from administration to administration, I mean, in my line of work I tend to think of social policy and the safety net as its sort of own little realm, but of course it’s not in the real world. So one illustration would be when Trump was president he spent a lot of time criticizing immigrants and immigration policy was something that he focused on very heavily. One of the consequences of that for the safety net is that a lot of immigrants, a lot of recent legal immigrants, hesitated to go apply for food stamps or other kinds of social benefits because they worried that somehow doing that would get them on the government’s radar screen and make them more likely to get hassled as immigrants. And so immigration policy did have effects on social policy, because it discouraged people from getting help that they otherwise would have been eligible for.

MARKHAM: Absolutely. And with the rolling back of some of these programs, it’s overwhelming to the people on the ground trying to still care for the people, whether those are children who need food, and we take—and the Child Tax Credit goes away, or the migrant issue and the border failures that we have in place. And then, again, the charitable sector is trying to make up for it. And it’s just not a good model. But I wonder if either of you sees any advocacy efforts that we might engage in that would help to challenge that a bit, to stabilize and maybe make permanent some of these programs?

PATHAK: I think for the organizations that are on this call, those are our priorities, right? We want to make sure that the programs that really support the lowest-income and working Americans every single day, these are the programs that we continue to invest in. Making sure that people have the supports they need in order to take care of their families’ life, in order to go out and look for a job, to keep the job, et cetera. Donna you started saying this earlier—we’ve seen over the last couple presidencies, administrations come and go, priorities change. And what we really saw within the Trump administration is a large-scale rolling back of the priorities that the Obama administration had put in.

This is—in some regard, it’s very dangerous, because it doesn’t allow us to build out a sustainable system. It allows us to build a system maybe that lasts for four years or less, and then someone comes in and changes it out. And in the long term, this is not going to be helpful to our economy. This is not going to help us grow. And it certainly is not going to support our residents in the way that people need to be supported. But I think it is important to acknowledge that we are in a very polarized political era right now. And unfortunately, polls after polls show that Republicans want less government spending. They want more local controls and more rules that require people to jump through hoops and obstacles in order to get basic supports.

And we have a divided Congress. We have Republicans in the House that are already saying that for programs like SNAP—there’s a reauthorization of SNAP under the farm bill that will happen this year. The House Republicans are already saying they’re interested in cutting funding for those programs, that have provided this really critical safety net. And what happens in those kinds of instances then, Donna, is if a government is not able to provide a strong enough public safety net, then it falls to the charitable organizations to pick up that slack.

And I think already you are probably seeing a lot of communities that are coming to you for resources. And this will just only continue to increase. I’m not sure if even the charitable organizations have the bandwidth to be able to sustain that over the long term. So I think we need to have some conversations about how do we sustain some of these changes and how do we do so in an era where the very conservative Republicans are just not interested in doing anything but rallying behind their caucus and their caucus’s priorities.

MARKHAM: Chris, do you want to have a magic bullet for this one? (Laughs.)

HOWARD: No, is the short answer. (Laughter.) When I was doing this research on the safety net, one of the things that I heard a number of times from charitable leaders, secular and religious, that they saw their efforts as being the safety net to the safety net. And that they realized that the public safety net had far more resources than they ever would have, but that it had holes in it. And that the charitable sector would come in where the public safety net fell short. So if you think of the public safety net as the first line of defense, I think one thing that we have seen is that programs that are targeted narrowly at the poor and that have no third-party constituency tend to be political orphans.

So the example I’d give would be like public housing. So one strategy that people have adopted, and you can see this in both Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, is to try to stretch the eligibility to people somewhat above the poverty line, to build a constituency that’s broader, that has more voters, that has more people that are going to matter to folks in Congress.

And a second and related strategy is to work on programs where you have some sort of third-party constituency—whether that’s the doctors and hospitals who are providing Medicaid, whether it’s small businesses who appreciate the Earned Income Tax Credit because it takes some of the pressure off them to pay higher wages, or some of the pressure off communities to raise minimum wages. Those seem to be sort of strategies. But it’s sort of saying that the technically most efficient approach, which might be, we’ll just set all of the money for people who are below poverty, politically that’s hard to sustain.

MARKHAM: Right. Good. Good insight. Before we move it over to our participants that are online with us, I did want to just ask a little bit about where, Arohi, maybe you start with this, about scaling up innovative practices that build financial security for low-income people. Because I think that is so critical to this conversation. The safety net is part of it, a big part of it, for sure. But then you’re also focusing in on help people as part of the springboard, I guess. But where do you see real innovative practices that are helping people get on their feet financially?

PATHAK: Sure. That is such a good question. I think where innovative practices are concerned, it’s probably at the state and the local level. Let me give you one example. The federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.25 an hour. It’s been at that level for over a decade. But if you look at states, and I think probably some cities have changed this at the city level as well, but if you look at some, there’s a fairly large number of states across the country that have realized that $7.25 is going to do absolutely nothing for their labor force, and have higher minimum wage rates in their states and in their cities. And it’s because they need to attract workers. It’s because they need to pay workers self-sufficient wages. It’s because they need to provide benefits, et cetera.

And so, while the safety nets are really important, I think one of the things that we need to remember is there are other mechanisms that we need to use in order to build financial security and in order to build an economy that works for everyone. So I’m talking about good jobs that pay well. I’m talking about jobs that have benefits, like health care, like paid time off. And so if you have a sick kid you don’t lose your job because you need to take a day off. I’m also talking about workforce training and employment and education opportunities that allow people to upskill their skills, I guess, so that they can get that better-paying job, so that they can be on a career ladder that actually allows for economic mobility and progression.

I think when we think about financial security, we have to think broadly. We can’t be just looking at one program. We need to be looking at infrastructure to see how infrastructure allows people to connect their communities where they live to jobs. Are there free buses? Or is there cheap transportation that gets them to their jobs? If not, then they’re not able to get to their jobs. They’re not able to build that financial security. So what I’m trying to say, rather inarticulately, is we need to be much more holistic and comprehensive in thinking of the solutions that we pull together that help underpin not only our economic growth and progress, but also underpin kind of the building financial security for individuals and families in our country.

And for too long, I think we’ve relied on service sector jobs. As manufacturing jobs moved overseas as globalization happened, we saw a lot of jobs kind of moving. Good, middle-class, union jobs moving from the United States to foreign countries, where labor is cheaper. And so we kind of focused more on the service economy. We focused more on gig economies and people cobbling together minimum wage jobs that really didn’t allow them to build financial security.

But one of the things that we’ve seen over the last couple years, which has been really, I think, hopeful, are a couple of big pieces of legislation that the Biden administration passed, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, and then the CHIPS and Science Act. And all three of these are intended to spur job creation, to spur manufacturing, and to bring competitiveness back to American soil. And so when we think about our economy and the potential that we have to grow our economy, I think we also really need to really think about what are all the supports that people need in order to make these good jobs, and make these jobs and industries family-sustaining, so that we can build wide-scale financial security for everyone that lives here?

MARKHAM: Great. Chris, is there anything that you’d like to add to that before we open it up to our audience?

HOWARD: Not much. I agree with much of what Arohi said. I think the main thing I’d say is that there is a genuine debate among policy experts as to just how much effort you ought to be putting at the state and local level. There are definitely examples, like minimum wage, where you can get the states moving ahead of the national government. But we’ve also seen with Medicaid expansion and the ACA that there are times when if you give states a lot of latitude, even given them substantial incentives to change, many of them won’t. And so it's not clear to me exactly when’s the right time to look to the states to take the lead. I know that it’s sometimes, but I don’t have a good sort of rule of thumb for when you should be looking to the states and when you ought to be looking to the national government and doing things like expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or things of that nature.

MARKHAM: Thanks. Thank you both very much.

And now, let’s see what we’re going to hear from our participants. We’re going to shift over to the chat and the Q&A.

OPERATOR: Thank you, Sister Donna.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first written question comes from Whitney Bodman. Who writes: The inevitable question is how do you pay for all of this? Simply raising taxes on the rich won’t even cover the future of Social Security and Medicare, as a recent New York Times editorial argued.

MARKHAM: All right, Chris, you want to start? (Laughs.)

HOWARD: Yeah. I mean, back to the question of sort of Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on the rich won’t take care of the entire problem. It would make a substantial dent in the problem. And we have seen, in the case of Medicare, that there is no salary cap on the payroll taxes for Medicare. And health care didn’t end, and the rich didn’t revolt, and life sort of moved on. And so treating Social Security the same way would be a sensible thing to do, in my view.

But the larger question is about sort of resources here. And I think that a lot of folks, including in my sort of policy area, tend to focus more on the benefits side of things and less on the tax side of things. When you ask Americans about their appetite for paying for various programs, you will find an appetite particularly for the broader, more inclusive programs. So I think there are a lot of people out there who are feeling the pinch on childcare, and long-term care, and housing. Those are the areas, big budget items, where people are really having trouble. And the idea about sort of, I think, shared sacrifice for problems that affect millions and millions of people, I think we’ve struck those sort of bargains at other times in other sort of social policy areas. And I think that’s got some potential.

That sort of circles back to my point about how it’s hard to build constituencies for programs that are targeted narrowly at the poor, because for a lot of folks they’re, like, well, that’s my tax money going to somebody else. It seems really overtly redistributive. I’m not sure how much goodwill and public spiritedness I have in order to fund that. And the funding questions often lead people to start advocating for more inclusive programs, to recognize that lots of people are affected by these needs.

PATHAK: I think, just to build on what Chris said, I agree with everything there. I think another issue is it’s how we prioritize in the United States. So our defense funding, for example, is a huge pot of money. And in fact, the defense spending for this fiscal year I believe Congress authorized more money than the defense community even asked for. Now, I’m not suggesting that we—(laughs)—particularly as we’re entering a possible cold war with China and have some other very big concerns looming on the horizon with Russia—I’m not suggesting that we nix defense funding.

But defense funding is a giant piece of the pie. And there might be ways in which we rethink how we allocate resources, in addition to taxing the rich. Taxing the rich is certainly not going to solve all the problems, it will make a dent, as Chris said. And I think, again, it’s a matter of prioritizing what we care about as a country and as a community versus kind of prioritizing corporate profits over everything else.

MARKHAM: How about another question? Because we want to get—OK, Chris, go ahead.

HOWARD: Just one other thing I’ll just add is that the top income tax rates on the rich right now are lower than they were under Ronald Reagan. So we’ve had times in this country when tax rates were higher and the economy did not go to hell. And there are a number of other countries that operate with higher levels of tax rates where economies are humming along just fine. So I don’t buy that the current sort of levels that we’re at now are somehow natural or inevitable.

MARKHAM: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Our next written question comes from Forrest Clingerman from Ohio Northern University.

He writes: You have raised the challenges that the U.S. has recently faced due to an increased political polarization. I would be interested to hear you reflect on whether the U.S. is a bellwether or an anomaly for future global questions around the safety net?

PATHAK: I think we have to confront modern challenges. I think increasingly we’re seeing the impacts of climate change, we’re seeing weather-related disasters every year decimating communities, decimating jobs. We are seeing things like the war on Ukraine by Russia, issues with China, et cetera. All of this does impact how we operate. It impacts the cost of things that we sell and are available in our country. It impacts our bottom line. It impacts our ability to be competitive globally. And so we do need to be responsive to that. And I think one of the things that perhaps we need to be better about is really thinking through our programs like food stamps, for example, a big food safety net program that is currently being reauthorized through the farm bill.

So as we have these opportunities to really rethink whether or not these programs are doing what they’re intended to do, are serving the people they’re intended to serve, and helping the people that they’re intended to serve, I think we also need to be very mindful of are we addressing the emerging challenges that we’re seeing? And are we creating the system that will be sustainable and equitable in the long run? And I think that that’s something that everyone is grappling with. I think the pandemic really kind of opened up a set of issues that maybe we hadn’t thought about as connected before, but now we’re kind of seeing them all together.

Just to give you an example of that, the high cost of food. The high cost of food is connected to the supply chain issues, it’s connected to the high cost of gas, it’s connected to climate change that is resulting in droughts across Asia and across Africa. All of these things impact the cost of food. When we’re thinking about our systems, when we’re thinking about our social safety net programs, we really need to think about kind of the bigger, the global context in which these issues are emerging, and think about how we address them in a sustainable way so that we don’t bump up against this in a couple of years.

MARKHAM: Thank you.

HOWARD: Yeah, back to the bellwether question. So I made a promise to myself years ago not to get into the crystal ball business. So I really don’t do predictions generally. And I figure, if meteorologists have trouble telling me the weather a week from now, I have trouble telling the safety net ten years from now. I do think that many of the challenges that we’re facing in this country are also being faced by countries all over the world, and that there is the potential for some learning.

And you’d have to sort of drop the pretense of American exceptionalism, that we are so different and unique we have nothing to learn from other countries. But I think other countries are dealing with industries that disappear, and workers that need to be retrained into some other area. They’re dealing with an aging population and pressures for better answers on long-term care. So I have no clue if what we’re doing is somehow a bellwether, but I think that there are many countries that are going through stresses similarly, and potentially have ways from learning from each other.

MARKHAM: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Robin Mohr from the Friends World Committee for Consultation.

Who writes: Do you see subsidized childcare as both a form of a safety net for young children and enabling labor force participation for low-income parents? Why does it not appear more prominently in the wider discussion of social safety nets?

PATHAK: Absolutely. Childcare is critical for working families. It is critical for parents to find a job, to keep a job, to go to their job every single day, to be able to have financial security, to be able to save for the future. In terms of why childcare has not gotten more traction, I think that that is a huge problem. I’m not the expert on childcare, but what I will say is that over the last two years, last three years actually now, I’m forgetting how long this pandemic has lasted, the one thing that we saw was the enormous need for a high-quality, safe, and affordable childcare system.

And there has been a lot of movement, a lot of advocacy to push for increased childcare funding, for childcare to become a bigger, more structured, more professional program, et cetera. As we saw in the Build Back Better bill, which was a set of priorities that the Biden administration was considering moving forward but ultimately did not have enough votes to be able to pass, childcare was a very big piece of that. And in the six, or seven, or twenty-five iterations of the Build Back Better bill, the childcare piece stayed in that bill every single time, which just underscores the need for it.

In DC, I will say that childcare is part of every conversation when it comes to family economic security. It’s always in the orbit. And childcare, to be fair, has actually received increased investments not only during the pandemic, through the Biden administration, but even before. I think it got a big boost under the CCDBG dollars maybe a year or two before the pandemic. So this is not to say that we’re not investing in childcare, but not to the extent that we need to be. That said, we just need to keep screaming it from the rooftops until someone in Congress, or lots of people in Congress, make a change, and really do something substantial and worthwhile around childcare. Because, absolutely, it’s one of the most important pieces for working parents and young kids in this country that we have just not cracked.

HOWARD: Two quick additions. I think in terms of sort of the politics, being a parent isn’t really a political identity in this country, right? We’ve got an American Association of Retired Persons. We don’t really have an American Association of Parents. So it’s not like parents are an active constituency that are present and organized in Washington to lobby for things like childcare.

The other thing I’ll mention is that the connection between work and childcare was something that was embedded into the 1996 welfare reforms. So the TANF provisions give communities the ability to sort of move money around. And in fact, most of that money now goes to services rather than cash assistance. So we have—we do understand the link there at some point. But I think that that sort of may have stopped there because we think that those very poor, single-parent families don’t really have any other resources. But when we get to other families, we assume—perhaps sometimes correctly—there’s a family safety net to sort of take care. There’s grandma and granddad will sort of take care of the kids afterwards until mom and dad get home from work. Or there’s an aunt that might be able to pick up some slack on the weekend, or something like that.

And what they don’t sort of realize is that family safety net is also highly stressed right now. And it’s difficult to make that work. And when kids get sort of left in between with either unstable, or unreliable, or unqualified childcare, that’s not only sort of hurting their performance in schools and their general wellbeing now, it’s probably not setting them up for success as much into the future once they get to be working age.

MARKHAM: Thank you. We’re getting close to the end of our time. So maybe this will be our last question, and then we’ll be turning it over to Irina.

OPERATOR: Our final question comes from Mufti Nayeem Ahmed from New York University.

Who writes: Given that various bills have been proposed in the U.S. Congress and the current administration with artificial intelligence taking mainstream, with ChatGPT, which is an AI tool, what are innovative ways to upgrade the skills and capabilities for all Americans across the country, given the changing nature and characteristic of domestic economics?

MARKHAM: Hmm. (Laughs.) I’m not sure I fully understand it, yeah. (Laughs.)

HOWARD: I’m going to answer this kind of, sort of, but not really. (Laughter.) I think that there’s often sort of a promise that, well, if you could take poor people and retrain them into high tech jobs you’d sort of figure and solve the problem. But I just don’t think there are enough of those jobs out there. And there’s still going to be a need for somebody to be working at 7-11, somebody to be working at nursing homes helping people get in and out of bed.

There’s still going to be a lot of essential jobs that don’t require college training or even specialized technical training that you could get in six months. And we’re going to have to decide whether we want to pay those people a decent wage or not. Those are sort of service jobs that are really hard to automate. They require a personal touch. And so we’ve got to decide what’s going to become of those workers who may, in fact, be underemployed, given their skill set, but these are the jobs that are available.

MARKHAM: You want to add anything to that, Arohi?

PATHAK: No. This is outside of my area of expertise. (Laughs.)

MARKHAM: I think Chris says it well. There’s such a need for some of the positions to be filled that are at lower levels, but people are not being paid sufficiently. And it’s when we, sometimes as employers, make that decision to say we’re going to figure out how to pay a livable wage rather than a minimum wage, and bring them—so those jobs are attractive to people, and really accord them the dignity that’s their due. I know that’s one of the big struggles we’re having at Catholic Charities, both with our own employees and with the employees that are working on some of the social enterprise initiatives. So very critical conversation to continue.

I’m going to bounce it over to Irina, if there are some final comments you’d like to make on this, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you all for doing this. We really appreciate it. And to all of you for your questions and comments. We encourage you to follow Chris Howard’s work at You can follow Arohi Pathak at And Sister Donna’s work at So go there for more information. And you can also follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. And also, do write to us. Send us an email at [email protected] with ideas, suggestions for future topics and speakers, and any other thoughts that you would like to share with us. So, again, thank you all for your participation in today’s really informative discussion. We appreciate it.

HOWARD: Thank you.

PATHAK: Thank you.

MARKHAM: Thanks, everybody.


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