Martha Burt and Demetra Nightingale of Johns Hopkins University -- co-authors of "Repairing the U.S. Social Safety Net" -- and an affiliated scholar at the Urban Institute said safety net programs should provide economic security, protect vulnerable families and promote equality.
However, the United States ranks near the bottom among 23 developed countries when it comes to the proportion of children and elderly in poverty, infant mortality and high school dropout rates, the authors said.
The authors trace these conflicting values to the first Calvinist settlers, who equated poverty with laziness, and to the culture of capitalism, which measures people by their ability to produce wealth.
Individualism and freedom, self-reliance and independence, hard work, fairness and the primacy of family and community sometimes conflict with compassion, fairness and a willingness to help those in need, they wrote.
Burt and Nightingale show public officials are often trapped between wanting to aid the needy and fearing they will inhibit individual responsibility. Officials have consistently defined poverty in ways that minimized the number of people considered poor, and as a result safety net programs are not serving most of the people in need, they concluded.