William Arnone, Chief Executive Officer

“America needs a new story – one that is honest and inspiring, and that doesn’t shy away from its racial history – to guide us toward realizing a thriving multiracial democracy,” writes Angela Glover Blackwell in her article, “How We Achieve a Multiracial Democracy” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Spring 2023). Blackwell is Founder in Residence of PolicyLink and a Member of the National Academy of Social Insurance.

I found the article spellbinding with compelling points on potential avenues that social insurance policy might pursue to achieve an advanced vision of democracy. Below are some of my reflections on her key points. I encourage Academy Members to engage with this important piece by a fellow Member. Find the article here.

The mythic American Dream 

“(T)he prevailing story about our country…was the tale of a nation carved by ruggedness, exploration, and aspiration. A nation full of potential that could be tapped through individual grit and courageous efforts pushing society toward equality and justice.” 

Often referred to as “the American Dream,” this myth of progress largely through self-reliance was shattered by the Great Depression of the 1930s, as well as “the weight of skyrocketing inequality, stalled economic mobility, institutional dysfunction, and greater public awareness of the nation’s fraught racial history and systematic racism.” 

It has been contended that the end of this national illusion and the  policy response was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its framework of social insurance innovations, especially the creation of Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. While both programs comprised a national recognition that a collective response was needed to address the failures of unbridled capitalism, they also excluded from their scope occupations held predominantly by people of color. 

The racial premise of social insurance was thus exclusionary. While such exclusions were eventually somewhat rectified, their impacts on income and wealth disparities were long-lasting and are still felt today by the descendants of those excluded. Social insurance programs also suffer from an astonishing lack of racial and ethnic data collection on which gaps and disparities in access to benefits could be assessed.

Economic security as a real possibility for all

According to Blackwell, “many white people, furthermore, do not believe the nation can provide good jobs, high-quality education, and economic security to everyone without taking away the advantages that they believe to be their birthright.” 

This is in contrast to Roosevelt’s 1934 Committee on Economic Security which set as its aspirational vision an “assured income: a program of economic security, as we vision it, must have as its primary aim the assurance of an adequate income to each human being in childhood, youth, middle age, or old age—in sickness or in health.” 

To achieve some level of assured income for all, the zero-sum mentality to which Blackwell refers must be abandoned. How to do this in today’s polarized political environment which feeds on racism is the challenge facing all of us.

This theme provides a framework for the policy research of the National Academy of Social Insurance, exemplified by the final report of our Economic Security Study Panel, Economic Security in the 21st Century (2022). Included among the four policy pillars identified in the report is Equity – policy focused on the reduction of severe inequities between demographic groups, including and certainly not limited to, the removal of barriers to opportunity for people with criminal records, streamlining paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, updating wage and hiring rules, improving eligibility design for means-tested spending programs, and improving careging supports. Check out the info sheet on Equity policy for more

The role of social insurance in a democratic society

The risk of the “sacrifice of democracy on the altar of racial superiority” is real and seems to be getting worse. The invaluable role of social insurance in a democratic society is often overlooked. The Academy’s mission reinforces this central tenet: “Social insurance plays an important role in a fair and just society that supports a strong democracy, a vibrant economy, and economic security.” 

To achieve this vision, however, those of us who are committed to social insurance policies must acknowledge the harsh reality that Blackwell describes. A “whitewashed” fable of U.S. history is a serious barrier that must be overcome. Social insurance has proven to be the most popular economic security model with voters, and Social Security itself has the potential to be a harmonizing program. Might a renewed and expanded social insurance system be part of a reconciliation to restore peace, and build a stronger multiracial U.S. democracy in the twenty-first century?

To accomplish this, we need not “worry that focusing on race threatens (our) big-tent strategy.” Instead, we need to acknowledge “the fact that the systems and institutions designed to oppress Black people…are now hurting all but the most affluent of Americans.” We need more emphasis on such concepts as “solidarity,” “interconnectedness,” and above all “the dignity of the human family.” 

Health security

In addition to economic security, social insurance policy includes a focus on health security. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how patchworked and fragile the U.S. healthcare system is. As Blackwell notes: “COVID-19 would not have been as devastating as it was if the United States had not systematically neglected the health of Black Americans for centuries.” She adds: “This neglect translated into the disarray of public-health systems, rendering them unable to provide services the public needed and making Black, Latinx, and Native American communities more vulnerable to greater rates of sickness and death.” 

The Academy’s COVID-19 Task Force’s Policy Translation Working Group will soon be issuing its final report on the performance of the nation’s social insurance and social assistance ecosystem during the pandemic and lessons learned to prepare our nation for the inevitable next big shock– whether it be another pandemic, a climate change catastrophe, or a physical or cyber attack by domestic or foreign terrorists.”

The role of the government 

Finally, our nation’s social insurance/social assistance infrastructure is a vivid reminder that “big government actions are the solution to large-scale social challenges.” Despite the impact of such programs as Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, Medicare and Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and Workers’ Compensation on reducing poverty, over one-third of our population still lives at or near poverty. Poverty rates that had been reduced by some of the bold pandemic-related federal interventions are now rising due to the temporary nature of legislation like CARES and the American Rescue Plan. Such data demand that long-term, systemic actions that only the federal government is capable of undertaking be taken.

As Angela Glover Blackwell concludes: “Ultimately the galvanizing force of a new national story will lie in its vision for the future.” This vision will necessitate a “radical imagination to conceive a nation united not by race, religion, ethnicity, or ancestral homeland, but by shared ideals of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness for all.” 

As always, we  welcome your thoughts and feedback on these essential questions in the comment section below.

William J. Arnone
Chief Executive Officer
National Academy of Social Insurance

William J. Arnone, Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Social Insurance

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