Defining the Social Safety Net

While health care services are universally available through the public health system, low-income and disadvantaged populations face greater personal and financial challenges to accessing health care (Gulliford, et al., 2002). America’s network of public assistance programs, or social safety net, offers services to address these social barriers in addition to supporting vulnerable populations with chronic or critical care needs. This assistance enables disadvantaged populations access healthcare and/or families with critical or chronic care needs stay at home or in the community for as long as possible.  The social safety net comprises the network of public assistance programs and services designed to help low-income and disadvantaged families in a crisis. These programs span 65-70 different categories of services including affordable childcare, public (or non-medical) transportation, rental or utility assistance, site-based respite services, short-term housing or shelter assistance, nutrition programs including missions and food banks, and the like. The social safety net comprises several types of organizations including non-profit organizations, faith-based organizations and government agencies.


Gulliford, M., Figueroa-Munoz, J., Myfanwy, M., Hughes, D., GIbson, B., Beech, R., et al. (2002). What does ‘access to health care’ mean? Journal of Health Service Research & Policy , 7 (3), 186-188.

National Research Council. (2004). Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2012). Overcoming obstacles to health. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

United States Census Bureau. (2012, September 12). Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from United State Census Bureau:

University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute. (2013, January). County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. Retrieved January 11, 2014, from Rankings Background:

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