Our Social Safety Net is Catching More Americans Than Ever, Now is the Time for Long-Term Investment

social safety net

Image courtesy of Pixabay user StockSnap.

Non-profit organizations across the U.S. are doing a heroic job responding to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. Some organizations are connecting vulnerable residents to essential services such as healthcare, housing, and food assistance, while others provide funding and education, and advocate on behalf of frontline service providers. State and local governments are also stepping up to protect residents, in part through investments in the non-profit sector. However, advocates across sectors are quick to point out that this crisis exposes critical gaps in our nation’s social safety net, which can only be filled through intervention at the federal-level.

The federal government has already taken some steps to mitigate the devastating impact of the outbreak on low-income individuals and communities. Most recently, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act instituted a 120-day eviction moratorium for renters living in properties with federally-backed mortgages, and allocated additional funding to help affordable housing and homeless service providers respond to the crisis.

As affordable housing advocates across the nation highlight the need for even greater investment during the pandemic – including funding for the HOME and Section 4 Capacity Building programs and the Rural Housing Service, and relief for projects benefitting from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program – many are also urging consideration of long-term solutions that would reduce the vulnerability of low-income individuals in future outbreaks. For example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition is calling for increased investment in the National Housing Trust Fund, a permanent increase in federal rental assistance, and the creation of a federal emergency assistance fund for eviction prevention.

The current pandemic draws attention to the interconnectedness of our fates and the fates of our neighbors. Social distancing and shelter in place orders are only effective if we all comply, meaning we need to ensure all our nation’s residents have a safe place to shelter. Yet this connectedness does not apply only in times of crisis. Ample evidence shows we all benefit from investment in low- and moderate-income individuals. For example, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund found that a 1% increase in the income share of the bottom 20% of earners increases GDP growth, while a corresponding increase among the top 20% of earners decreases GDP growth. At the local level, research shows that adequate affordable housing stock benefits local jurisdictions through increased tax and business revenue, increased recruitment and retention of employees, and reduced traffic congestion.

Both the connection between affordable housing stock and economic prosperity, and the connection between affordable housing stock and public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the role of affordable housing as infrastructure. Like the bridges, roads, and transit systems that connect us to work, and the health system that cares for us and our families, affordable housing is necessary to sustain individual and community well-being. Also, like other forms of infrastructure, the creation and maintenance of adequate affordable housing stock can only be achieved through partnerships between the public and private sectors.

Public-private partnerships are needed to facilitate affordable housing development and other social safety net programs at all times. But these partnerships will be more crucial than ever in the wake of the current crisis, when economic recession is likely to exacerbate current needs, while diminishing the capacity of individuals and corporations to supplement government funding for non-profit organizations. As we push for short-term relief for Americans at risk of slipping through the holes in our social safety net, advocates should continue to push for long-term commitments to repair these holes at the federal, state, and local levels to achieve a future where no resident of our country is left behind.  

Nora Daly, Director of Programs and Community Engagement