The remarkable transformation of the American social safety net that began in the early 1990s has led to seismic shifts in who benefits and how. More than two decades later, how should these changes be judged? Expanding and updating prior influential reviews, we evaluate how the transformation of the safety net—broadly defined—has shaped economic and family dynamics within low-income households. Collectively, social safety net policies have expanded support for working poor parents quite dramatically, while the cash safety net for the nonworking poor has all but collapsed. Working poor families have come out ahead economically, with mounting evidence of positive long-term benefits for child health and development. At the same time, a substantial number of poor families have fallen through the cracks, disconnected from stable, adequate wage income and cash aid. A growing number report income so low that it can be tracked with indicators used to measure poverty in the developing world. Meanwhile, contrary to reformers’ predictions, these changes have had little effect on marriage or unwed births. We call for a reinvigorated focus on the continued evolution of the social safety net and discuss ways in which a sociological perspective can enhance such work.


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