The Social Safety Net is an Essential Service

By KP Naidu, VP of Benetech Labs, posted on

In the US, the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to causing more than 200,000 deaths, has resulted in unemployment for over 16.3 million Americans. As a result, the demands on critical social safety net services such as food, shelter, medical treatment and so on have skyrocketed.

The safety net was originally designed to be an insurance policy to help vulnerable citizens when they stumble occasionally and need help getting back on their feet. Over the decades it has become an essential service relied on by the nearly 42% (2018 Census Bureau data) of Americans who earn less than a living wage (defined as twice the poverty level). Worse still, over 17M people live in abject poverty with incomes below 50% of the poverty thresholds.

“When COVID hit, I lost my well-paying job and the medical benefits which came with it. I dipped into my savings to pay the rent, medical insurance for myself and my wife and two children and all the other bills. Now I have very little savings left and am stressed about how I can look after my family when the money runs out. The unemployment insurance and the extra money from the government is helping, but what do I do when that runs out? I’m 54 years old. No one wants to hire an older person. I’ve never had to ask for help before, but now I am desperate.” – C.S

Out of every 100 americans, 42 earn less than a living wage, 12 live in poverty, and more than 5 live in abject poverty.

There is a view that if people work minimum wage jobs, then they should be ok. The reality is very different. The living wage for a family of four is $51,402. Even if both parents work full time (40 hours a week) and one parent works a second full time job, they will still be 15% shy of the living wage. Without services like child care and assistance with housing, food and medical care, they simply could not survive.

A graphic depicting the gap between the living wage for a family of four and yearly earnings at minimum wage. Extended description below.
Extended Description

The graphic depicts the living wage gap for a family of four at 40, 80, and 120 hours a week of work at minimum wage. It shows that to meet the living wage for a family of four requires 142 hours of work per week at minimum wage.

Values: 40 hours per week is $14,500 annually, 72% below the living wage. 80 hours a week is $29,000 annually, 44% below the living wage. 120 hours a week is $43,500, 15% below the living wage. 142 hours per week is $51,402, the living wage for a family of four.

Presentation: The chart shows each income level as a step on a staircase from 40 hours a week at the lowest step to 142 hours per week at the highest step.

“I am 23 years old. My father is an hourly-wage worker in a metal shop. My mother cleans houses. I am student in my senior year, and I’m also working two part-time jobs which pay the minimum wage. My grandmother also lives with us. After paying rent, medical insurance and utilities we barely manage to get by. We rely heavily on food pantries and local charities for food and supplies. Typically, we need to go to three different food pantries to get what we need. Only one pantry has fresh vegetables and that too only once a week. One of us has to stand in line for two hours before the pantry opens so we can be sure to get some fresh vegetables. I am a senior in college with a $60,000 student loan to repay. I want to graduate and get a job so I can support myself and my family and repay my student loan.” – E.C

Safety net services – food pantries, soup/food kitchens, shelters, child-care facilities, legal aid services, mental health services and more are now part of the critical infrastructure of society. Information about what services are available, where they are available, their eligibility criteria and their capacity and real-time service availability are vital for the survival of millions.

The information about these services are fragmented across and locked in multiple siloed data repositories. Some databases, like the ones maintained by the 211 helplines are quite extensive. Yet there are many services and community-based organizations (CBOs) which are not included.

Many independent information and referral agencies have sprung up to try and solve the problem, but they too falter when it comes to updating the data. Other referral agencies focus on specific niches such as food scarcity, housing or mental health. As a result, while their data about community-based organizations providing services in their niche may be more complete, their data about other services is often absent, incomplete or outdated.

Data sharing between organizations is very rare. The traditional method of maintaining the accuracy of the data is by contacting the CBOs directly. However, with thousands of such organizations in a state, it is a Sisyphean task. Since the CBOs are extremely busy dealing with the sudden increase in the number of clients due to COVID-19 and the resultant unemployment crisis, they are less likely to respond to the requests for information updates from multiple agencies.

“We are 12 people – three women, two children and seven men - living in a one-bedroom apartment. When COVID hit, all of us lost our jobs. Some of us were working in restaurants, in construction or as office and domestic cleaners. Some are relatives and some are friends and when we lost our jobs, we decided to live together to save costs. We had no jobs for more than four months. Four of us have now found jobs. Three of us work 20-30 hours a week. We each earn about $15 per hour. The fourth works as an Uber driver, his earnings dropped when COVID hit. It’s very stressful with so many of us living in a small space, but we have no choice. We spend hours every day calling food pantries and other charities to try and find food, baby formula, diapers and things like toothpaste and soap. We have five cars in the whole group, but not enough money for gas. Our friend who drives for Uber picks up supplies between his jobs. Some of us just walk, sometimes for five or six miles, to get food from the food pantries. We just want to work so we can go back to our old life.” – J.M

Benetech Service Net is specifically designed to address the issue of incomplete or inaccurate information about CBOs in the social safety net. The platform allows CBOs to directly update their information and have those updates flow out to the 211 and other referral agencies in their region. Critically, the CBOs can update their daily capacity and availability of services and have these reported in real-time to the referral agencies and to any government agencies (the Emergency Operations Centers for example) so they can appropriately direct people seeking help. The information is also available on a website so the public can quickly search for the services they need.

The social safety net is in tatters, but we can weave a stronger fabric of care through effective data sharing. To learn more about implementing Service Net in your region, email servicenet@benetech.org.