History of the Social Safety Net

A brief overview of U.S. benefit programs throughout the 20th Century.

Today’s social safety net is a combination of programs that have responded to national concerns throughout the twentieth century. The programs include social insurance initiatives, designed to assist all individuals who have paid into the system, such as Social Security, and means tested programs targeted to individuals or families based on economic need. ;xNLx;;xNLx;Both social insurance and means-tested programs can be paid for by federal or state resources, or a combination thereof, and may be administered at either the federal or state level. ;xNLx;;xNLx;All of these programs have evolved over time and continue to change as a result of public sentiment and political will.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

Social Security begins to provide federal cash assistance to disabled individuals.

Federal Employers Liability Act

The first federal law to address work-related injury provides benefits to injured railroad workers.

Unemployment Insurance

Concern about unemployment during the Great Depression leads to the inclusion of unemployment insurance in the Social Security Act of 1935.

Dependent and Survivors' Benefits for Social Security

The introduction of dependent and survivors' benefits moves Social Security from an individual-based to a family-based program.

The National School Lunch Program

The federal government creates a national school nutrition program for low-income children.

Food Stamps

The Food Stamp Act of 1964 provides assistance for food expenditures.


The Social Security Amendments of 1965 authorize Medicare to provide health insurance coverage for nearly all Americans 65 and older.


The country's largest means-tested program is created and provides health insurance for low-income individuals.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

A new, federally-run program provides cash assistance to aged, blind, and disabled individuals.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act reforms the AFDC program.

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