William Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance
For all of us who are dedicated to the Academy’s mission – “increasing public understanding of how social insurance contributes to economic security” – 2019 has the makings of a challenging year.
One of the top challenges facing us as we begin a new year is to develop and refine a common language that connects with the public at large. When distraction, detraction, and discord seem so prevalent in the nation’s political discourse, we need new ways to refocus the conversation on unifying issues that matter most to many. When it comes to providing greater economic security and reducing inequality in our nation, we need to reframe how we discuss social insurance, so that its enduring value as shared protection will be communicated more effectively.
If we were to measure the American people’s current understanding of social insurance, what might we find?
Most Americans no doubt are able to recognize our nation’s core social insurance programs – especially Social Security and Medicare – largely because of the impact of these popular programs on their own lives, or on the circumstances of members of their families. Many polls, including the Academy’s own survey, have shown that Americans across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support Social Security.
If asked, however, how and why these programs came to be – and how their futures look – too many would probably be unable to respond with knowledge and confidence.
Why is that so? What do we need to do to alter this?
Part of this reaction is due to a common refrain in some media and policy circles that social insurance itself is a relic of a bygone era. Rather than being recognized as a systemic response to the fluctuations and disruptions that market economies experience, the history of the Social Security Act may appear to be a remote response to extraordinary political turmoil and widespread economic distress. The Presidential Committee on Economic Security performed the pioneering groundwork for its enactment by examining evidence from the ground up – a policy approach that seems foreign in today’s political environment. Unlike today, most social science undergraduate programs back then included social insurance’s rationale and development. Furthermore, the demographic composition of the United States and its workforce in the 1930s bears little resemblance to today’s America, but workers do continue to face unpredictable economic risks and financial insecurity.
Another part of this reaction, however, is due to the language we typically use to discuss social insurance concepts and issues. As an Academy comprised of the nation’s top experts in one or more areas of social insurance, we take pride in the scholarly writings of our Members. The primary audiences for such writings are researchers and policymakers. For their work to resonate with the broader public, however, translation is necessary – especially as a major segment of the target audience consists of younger Americans who rely more on new forms of communication, including social media.
As Academy Founding Board Member, Ted Marmor, recently wrote: “(O)ver the years our vocabulary of social insurance has become increasingly replaced…creating a fundamentally misleading impression about most of what the federal government does.” He added: “By the end of the 20th century, the category of social insurance had seemingly lost its place in the vocabulary of American politics.”
With this goal in mind, the Academy has carefully selected “Regenerating Social Insurance for Millennials and the Millennium” as the theme of our 31st annual policy conference. (Visit the website for more information). The conference will explore policy options for improving the financial prospects of all Americans, particularly Millennials and future generations, as well as current beneficiaries. Among the key questions we will examine are:
What risks do younger generations face that are similar to those that confronted other generations at the same stages of life?
What risks are significantly different for younger generations than those that confronted their predecessors?
What new provisions are needed to protect against these risks?
While our annual policy conference will begin to change the conversation, the Academy’s policy and leadership development activities throughout the new year will also reflect this necessity. Through our study panels, outside-the-Beltway forums, issue briefs, internships, media relations, and other endeavors, we will be identifying potential enhancements to core social insurance programs to address the changing landscape of economic risks.
We will, of course, undertake these activities with an unwavering commitment to the value of facts and evidence, despite the current climate of skepticism or, as some have described it, “truth decay.” As Jill Lepore, author of These Truths (W.W. Norton), has noted: “There’s an incredibly rich scholarship on the history of evidence…Facts have been devalued for a long time.” She added: “Nothing could be less well settled in the twenty-first century than whether people know what they know from faith or from facts.”