Addressing Structural Racism in Social Impact: Lessons from the Social Safety Net

August 28, 2020 – By Angela Guo

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of the social safety net amidst historic losses and tragedies: mass unemployment, food insecurity, and uninsured healthcare, to name a few. And when it comes to race, a deep dive into the numbers is jarring: Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, both financially and health-wise — the Black and white unemployment gap widened to 5.3 percentage points in June and the coronavirus is killing Black Americans at a rate three times that of white people. This isn’t a coincidence.

The Black Lives Matter movement is radically changing how we look at our public institutions, personal actions, and historical relationships through the basis of race. The movement has led to the removal of confederate statues, discussions about representation in media, and legislation regarding police funding. These groundbreaking changes result from overdue analyses of how race is integrated into our systems and symbols, in ways many had never thought twice about. The social safety net system consists of welfare programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance, that provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of low-income Americans. As one of our nation’s most prominent systems in a time of crisis, the social safety net must be examined in the context of race.

Overt to Covert: The History of the U.S. Social Safety Net

“I understand they’re going through a fraud situation, but that doesn’t pay my bills,” Karen Womack told The Washington Post. After Karen verified her identity for unemployment benefits with the state of Washington and the state’s unemployment office cut her aid anyway, she found herself caught up in a system that has institutionalized racism since its founding in 1935.

The U.S. government passed the Social Security Act of 1935 providing an early safety net for elderly, unemployed, and disadvantaged Americans, described by President Franklin Roosevelt as “some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family.” Yet, lawmakers codified the first formal safety net with racism; unemployment insurance was a key component of that law, but agricultural workers and personal service workers were ineligible, leaving 65% of Black American workers without access to unemployment insurance, compared to 27% of white workers. Again, this isn’t a coincidence.

Racist sentiments have echoed throughout the years of discussion around social safety net policy. In 1976, Ronald Reagan leveraged the “welfare queen” narrative in his presidential campaign to describe a Black woman who used “80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” This narrative further fueled racial animosity towards Black Americans and unfairly associated them with using fraud to exploit the safety net.


A Brief History of the Social Safety Net in the United States

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Politicians today replicate the welfare queen narrative with a focus on preventing fraud instead of finding ways to effectively deliver benefits to vulnerable Americans. The Beeck Center’s Social Safety Net Benefits Research details the technological barriers in the social safety net imposed by, for example, the digital divide and remote identity proofing when accessing benefits. While current safety net policies don’t share the same overt racist language used to construct the first policies, structural racism compounded over decades still poses obstacles for Black individuals from equitably accessing the safety net. Not only does structural racism prevail in the social safety net, but it also presents itself in other institutions in the United States such as the criminal justice system, education system, and child welfare system.

Patterns of racism in our social institutions often go unacknowledged and unchallenged since they have become ingrained in our society. We must create and implement data and technology solutions that focus on eliminating the racial inequities found in the social safety net system and other public institutions. Working through the lens of anti-racism is a critical requirement for the work of social impact.

What We Can Do

After looking at the history of the social safety net in the United States, we can begin to go beyond the surface of the problems we aim to address. As leaders in the social impact space, we must:

  • Understand the institutionalization of racism in our systems and institutions while designing direct solutions. Without deepening our understanding of racism in the foundation of our social institutions, we may inadvertently scale ideas that are merely the modernized versions of the exclusionary practices from the past.
  • Constantly analyze the tools we use for social impact. We often see technological advances as efficient tools for advancing social impact. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology details the intersection of race and technology, and how emerging tech and data tools covertly leverage racism in design solutions. Though unintentional, there can be harmful effects on the populations they were meant to serve when we use tools that were historically meant to discriminate.
  • Emphasize process over product in our work. Product-oriented work often neglects the complexities of the problem itself, and the product instead becomes a blanket on the problem we aim to address through social impact. When taking more time to explore the process of our work, we can be better equipped with the methods and capabilities for achieving equitable and sustainable social impact through the lens of racial equity.
  • Evaluate the positions we hold, both personally and professionally. Are leaders in decision-making and social influence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)? Are we designing solutions with and for oppressed communities, or are we instead pushing them aside when making decisions?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of steps we can take in our role as social innovators. Anti-racism is an ongoing process that requires active learning coupled with meaningful action. By acting intentionally with a deep comprehension of the intricacies of structural racism in social impact, we can begin to break down the systems and patterns that perpetuate racism and exclusion within our systems and ensure that our social safety net is there to equitably serve all Americans when they need it.

Angela Guo was a Summer 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center supporting the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studying Economics and Public Policy.

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