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.

1908-12-01 00:00:00

Federal Employers Liability Act

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

1911-03-13 12:33:10

The Mothers' Pension Movement

Illinois becomes the first state to enact a mothers' pension program and starts the movement to establish one of the first widespread means-tested programs.

1934-12-31 14:58:41

Social Security Retirement Benefits

The largest New Deal initiative becomes the centerpiece of the modern social insurance system in the United States.

1935-01-01 00:00:00

Unemployment Insurance

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

1935-01-01 14:58:41

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)

The Social Security Act of 1935 establishes the first federal means-tested program for providing cash assistance to needy children.

1939-12-01 00:00:00

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.

1944-06-22 20:03:00

The G.I. Bill

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act becomes law, providing educational benefits and one year of unemployment compensation to veterans.

1946-04-23 06:32:34

The National School Lunch Program

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

1956-10-25 12:50:09

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

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

1964-01-01 00:00:00

Food Stamps

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

1965-01-01 00:00:00


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

1965-01-18 22:43:29


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

1972-02-02 10:14:23

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

WIC provides healthy foods for pregnant women and young children.

1972-12-01 00:00:00

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

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

1975-05-07 20:46:00

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

The EITC provides tax credits for low-income, working families.

1980-08-06 15:22:22

Energy Assistance Programs

The federal government provides assistance for home heating, cooling, and fuel costs in low-income households.

1996-12-01 00:00:00

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

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

1997-12-01 00:00:00

State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

SCHIP provides health insurance coverage for near poor children.

2003-12-01 00:00:00

Medicare Part D

Medicare Part D provides prescription drug benefits for seniors.

2010-01-01 00:00:00

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Health reform expands Medicaid eligibility and offers subsidies to purchase private health insurance.

History of the Social Safety Net

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