During economic downturns the social safety net can play a critical role for families as well as for the economy more broadly. Social programs can protect vulnerable families by making it easier for them to continue to meet basic needs. The social safety net can also act as a fiscal stimulus — increasing government spending when other spending is in retreat — and, in so doing, prevent further job loss. However, over the past couple of decades there has been an important shift in U.S. social policy towards a system that makes the availability of assistance more dependent on participation in paid-work. Does this shift hinder the ability of social programs to play a buffering role during periods of high unemployment? The response of the different programs during the Great Recession offers lessons on how reforms have impacted the responsiveness of the safety net.