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Martha Coven

Non-profit Consultant, Visiting Professor at Princeton

Martha Coven teaches at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, where her students are working towards a one or two-year master’s degree in public policy (MPP) or public affairs (MPA). These students, who have an undergraduate degree and some work experience, are seeking formal training to prepare for a future as a public policy professional. Coven recently took time out of her busy semester start to share some views on student interests in social insurance and how she hopes to nurture the next generation of leaders in the field.

Q: Do any of the courses you teach cover social insurance programs?

Coven: Absolutely. The two courses I teach that are most relevant to social insurance are a course in poverty and public policy in the United States and a course in federal budgeting. In both classes we talk about Social Security—obviously a big part of our federal budget picture—as well as an important piece of the anti-poverty landscape, since it lifts more people out of poverty than any other program. In the federal budget class, we also talk about health care entitlements because of the large budgetary role they play. In the poverty class, we get into Workers’ Compensation, Unemployment Insurance, and Medicaid. We even talk a bit about paid leave, which is in the early stages of becoming part of our social insurance landscape.

Q: Do your graduate students have prior knowledge of social insurance programs?

Coven: It’s rare to find a student who walks in with a strong command of every programmatic area. Sometimes they bring a personal experience—for example, a student may have grown up in a low-income family and had Medicaid, or had a parent who was unemployed for a time and relied on Unemployment Insurance. Sometimes students who have been in the workforce bring experience on a particular topic like health policy. But students are fairly similar to the general public, which means they have an incomplete understanding of the full network of programs we support with our tax dollars to help remedy economic hardship and insure people against various risks.

Probably the number one thing I want to accomplish, given the age of the people I’m teaching, is to debunk the myth that Social Security will not be there for them. There’s so little understanding of Social Security financing, and the fact that benefits are largely covered by current payroll tax revenues. If someone thinks they’re going to get nothing and they find out they’re going to get at least eighty cents on the dollar, that is an important point to get across!

Q: Is it difficult to instill students’ confidence in social insurance programs?

Coven: I actually find that this generation—maybe because of the time in which they grew up—is more aware of the volatility of the economy and labor markets, and therefore tends to be supportive of public programs to help cushion those blows. I don’t find them to be anti-government or anti-social insurance, though they do want—as they should—programs to be designed and implemented well. My students generally see social insurance programs as the lifelines they are, and often their family members have caught one of those lifelines in a time of need.

More generally, I don’t worry that millennials are giving up on social insurance by any stretch of the imagination. If you look at the current Democratic presidential candidates, for instance, some are proposing a vast expansion of government. Who are they appealing to? They’re appealing to that generation, in part.

I also think younger generations have a different expectation around caregiving and feel the need for better solutions. Their views come partly from women having been in the workforce in large numbers for many decades now, and also from seeing caregiving increasingly as a responsibility all genders share.  

Q: Would you consider your students progressives?

Coven: I always have some students who bring a conservative perspective to my classroom, as well as many who are progressive. That mix is important. I want my students to feel comfortable sharing different perspectives in the conversations we have. I also strive to include a range of viewpoints in the readings I assign. Students have to see how someone else can come at the same problem from a different ideological perspective and propose a different policy solution. Examining alternative viewpoints also helps them—whether they are progressive or conservative—know how someone might make an argument against a policy they support, and be better prepared to defend it.

Q: You’ve volunteered to serve as a speaker for the Academy’s 2020 Weekly Seminar Series for Interns. Can you tell us about your topic?

Coven: What motivated me to participate in an intern seminar was my experience working with Eileen Sweeney, for whom one of the Academy internships is named. She was a colleague of mine at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and such a compassionate and thoughtful person. She taught me everything I know about designing policies and programs to reflect the lived experience of people with disabilities. I’m eager to support the internship in Eileen’s name which will help develop the next cohort who will continue to do that important work.

I’d love to do a “Federal Budget 101” session. The budget affects every federal program and just about every activity at an agency. Understanding it better can be empowering.

Find out about the Academy’s 2020 Summer Internship Opportunities 

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More about Martha Coven

Martha Coven has spent her career inside and outside of government working on domestic policy, with a particular focus on poverty reduction and the federal budget. Before coming to Princeton, she served for six years in the Obama Administration. From 2011 to 2014, she was the Associate Director for Education, Income Maintenance, and Labor in the Office of Management and Budget. From 2009 to 2011, Coven served as a Special Assistant to the President at the Domestic Policy Council, where she was the lead policy advisor on anti-poverty programs and initiatives, job training and employment services, and work-family issues. Prior to joining the Administration, Coven spent eight years in the non-profit sector, at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and at Consumers Union. Coven holds a B.A. in economics and a J.D. from Yale University.