08/28/2013 08:16 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Who Lands in the Safety Net?

The rate of poverty is up, but some in Congress want to cut Food Stamps; unemployment persists, but in some states, such as North Carolina, which has a particularly high unemployment rate, politicians want to cut unemployment benefits. This raises an important question: Who do we catch in our safety net?

The answer is deceptively simple. The safety net catches regular citizens, like you and me. If truth be told, most of us have family members or neighbors or co-workers or friends who have been on the "public dole" at some point in time. Unemployment benefits, disability insurance, disaster recovery funds, temporary assistance to needy families -- all of these programs make up the so-called safety net that is part of the overall human services system in the U.S. And the thing about human services is that they are for and about humans. And we are all human.

There is no great mystery about poverty. It's a function of a variety of factors, including, where you live, who you were born to, your ethnicity, whether or not your parents had an education, whether you got an education, and whether your family had access to a network that could help you get ahead in life. Since the Great Recession began, we have seen more people sliding deeper into poverty and hardworking Americans, now unemployed, fall from middle class into the ranks of the poor. And yet erroneous ideas like, 'government programs promote poverty' and 'people are lazy' persist.

It's not just a lack of empathy or understanding of the facts. It's about leadership and the failure of our leaders to temper ideology with pragmatism and acting for the greater good. Some Indiana legislators, for example, are attempting to require drug tests for public aid recipients, despite the lack of evidence that drug use among recipients is a major problem or a problem at all. For the sake of ideology, or just plain old cussedness, I guess, these legislators are willing to spend millions to fix a problem that does not exist. Or, if it does, at a marginal cost to the state, which is significantly lower than the "solution" they propose. Not a good business decision, my friends, and poor governance to boot.

The true "safety net," in my view, is all of human services. Programs that keep folks afloat economically are fundamental, but they are also inadequate if other barriers to self-sufficiency are not addressed. Human service programs seek not only to sustain people in hard times, but to help people and communities develop into successful, self-sustaining participants of our society.

The rate of workforce participation by people with disabilities is less than thirty percent of that for people without disabilities. In this day and age, we know and believe that people with disabilities have much to offer. So wouldn't life skills education, transportation assistance and workforce preparation make sense if we want to reduce reliance on government assistance? Wouldn't allowing older people to retain their modest wealth and receive aid to stay in their homes or with their families make more sense than requiring them to "spend down" to qualify for costly public subsidies?

A legislator with family members and constituents who are gay may see the light on LGBT equality issues. One with a developmentally disabled child or grandchild may have a soft spot in his or her heart for this population and its needs. For many, human services and the safety net are integral, welcomed parts of their lives. But as a nation, we should not have to rely on legislators' personal experiences for good policy. Why? Because if all legislators looked more closely -- if we all did -- we would see in our circles of friends, acquaintances and family, people who experience nearly every challenge known to mankind, the same developmental needs and trials as our population as a whole.

The "otherizing" of people who use the safety net or human services more broadly is both demagoguery and inaccurate. The truth is, it's not them; it's us.