State Social Safety Net Programs and the Great Recession: The First Line of Defense and the Last Resort for the Economically Disadvantaged
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The Great Recession (2007‒2009) and its lingering aftermath have posed challenges to the state safety net programs that are intended to provide income supports to the economically disadvantaged. The stratified, decentralized structure of the U.S. social welfare system has contributed to uneven policy responses to economic hardship across programs and states. With a focus on the Unemployment Insurance (UI) and General Assistance (GA) programs, this dissertation consists of three papers that investigate (1) the impacts of state UI modernization, (2) state UI approaches to social protection, and (3) state legislative reform of GA, respectively. This dissertation takes a multidisciplinary approach that integrates theoretical perspectives and research methods from social welfare, sociology, political science, and economics. The first paper evaluates the effects of state UI modernization on the trajectories of household income-to-poverty levels during and after the Great Recession. It uses the nationally representative 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation panel dataset (merged with state data) and multilevel growth models to test the policy effects from 2008 through 2013. Findings show that working families had not yet fully recovered from the Great Recession by the end of 2013. However, working families in states enacting UI modernization provisions, on average, experienced a greater economic improvement rate in the income-to-poverty level than their counterparts, controlling for state and household characteristics. The second paper classifies state UI policy approaches to social protection by using an advanced model-based clustering technique to analyze multidimensional policy design and performance characteristics of 51 UI programs. Results indicate two distinct state UI approaches to social protection for workers: high and low protection. The high-protection approach, compared to its low-protection counterpart, is characterized as combining high financing adequacy with high taxable wages and average tax rates; high program accessibility with inclusive eligibility criteria; and high wage replacement with high benefit levels. These two approaches remained comparatively stable over time. However, both showed a declining trend in the social protection performances from 2007 to 2014. The third paper employs a thematic content analysis of 26 legislative videos to examine how policy actors used knowledge to frame the problems of the poor and shape GA reform in Washington State. Findings show that knowledge construction of the GA-unemployable population as social deviants with psychological and behavioral problems influenced the GA reform directions toward a regulated, punitive model. These negative social constructions, intersecting with the mainstream welfare ideology of personal responsibility and work ethic, contributed to dismantling the safety net of last resort for the least resourceful poor. As a whole, this dissertation research contributes to the fields of state welfare politics, policies, and practice through enhancing the understanding of the connections among macroeconomic conditions, anti-poverty politics, policy designs, and the state safety net system. Policy implications for promoting economic justice for disadvantaged and marginalized populations are offered.