William Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance
In a recent article in Governing, J.B. Wogan asks, “Is it time to stop saying ‘Safety Net?’”
He reports that several national groups representing public agencies and non-profits that administer food, housing, and health care benefit programs have stopped using the term “safety net” to describe these programs. He notes that “(d)ropping the term safety net is part of the human services groups’ broader strategy to get the public and policymakers to think of human services as investments in the community that boost the economy, reduce crime and improve public health.”
He adds: “Instead of talking about the safety net, the groups want people to think about access to employment, housing, education and health care as ‘building blocks’ necessary for a metaphorical ‘house,’ or community’s well-being. They emphasize that communities are interconnected, so services that help one household or neighborhood succeed ultimately benefits everyone.”
Social insurance programs, like Social Security and Medicare, are also often referred to as part of the nation’s “social safety net,” even by well-intentioned supporters of these programs. In particular, Social Security’s critical role in reducing the poverty rate among older Americans is emphasized.
The term “safety net” also runs the risk of redirecting social insurance programs to those who are in need of being “saved,” due to financial distress and perhaps implied personal failure. Some, who prefer a more targeted system of benefits, often embrace this term. It also has undertones of charitable assistance, which runs counter to the essence of social insurance.
While this phrase focuses on how these programs save many recipients from potential economic catastrophes and suffering, it fails to capture the role that social insurance plays for all covered individuals as a universal system of earned benefits.
Writing in Social Security: Today and Tomorrow, Robert Ball noted:
“Differing terminology leads to differing ways of thinking about a program; the different terms can influence public perception and the perception of policymakers and therefore affect action.”
With that wise counsel in mind, what is a preferred alternative to “safety net?” Similar to the concept of “building blocks” noted above, I prefer the term “foundation.” This word recognizes that Social Security and other forms of social insurance are cornerstones upon which all individuals build throughout their working careers. For example, Social Security is a solid and dependable base to partially replace earnings that are lost due to retirement, disability, or death. Every American – not only the lower-paid – is able to build future economic protection on top of this foundation through personal savings, private insurance, and employment plans. The word “foundation” also connotes the broader social role that social insurance plays as a source of national stability, instead of potential dissatisfaction and unrest.
The mission of the National Academy of Social Insurance is “to advance solutions to challenges facing the nation by increasing public understanding of how social insurance contributes to economic security.” A key element in fulfilling this mission is to use terminology that accurately describes the role of social insurance and resonates with the public.