William Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance

The month of February typically connotes a “V”- phrase: Valentine’s Day. For me, another word comes to mind: values.

What are the underlying values that make social insurance resonate with most Americans? Is there a normative framework through which social insurance might be viewed?

Media coverage seldom focuses on the core principles that drive discussions of programs and proposals. Yet, such principles are critical to truly understanding the rationale for, and philosophy of, programs like Social Security, Medicare, Workers’ Compensation, and Unemployment Insurance. They are also fundamental to policy debates about these programs’ futures.

Two of our Academy’s Founding Board Members, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, have made values central to their Social Security advocacy. Both view the essential human values that underpin Social Security as: “the responsibility to care for others; the value of hard work and fair rewards; dignity; the common good; and a fundamental understanding that we are all connected.” In other words, our sustained societal investment in Social Security is one of the most valuable and effective we make.

In her book, The Truth About Social Security (2018), Nancy wrote: “The truth is that Social Security, expanded as the founders intended, is fully affordable. The issue is one of values. Moreover, the values at stake are those that unite us. It is these underlying values embedded in Social Security’s very structure that make it so popular…One value is reward for hard work…(other values are) fairnessfamilyindividual responsibilityshared riskprudence.”  She added: “The quintessential American values Social Security embodies and the vital protection it provides are what make Social Security so popular” (pp. 313-14).

Ted Marmor, another Founding Board Member, observed: “The partial measures in the Affordable Care Act appealed to the values underlying social insurance, but almost no connection was made between these measures and a principled vision of social insurance” (“Social Insurance and American Health Care: Principles and Paradoxes,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, December 2018).


History of Social Insurance

Long before Eric, Nancy, and Ted embarked on careers championing these values and vision, three of the leading social insurance scholars of the 20th century articulated their perspectives.

One was Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong who, in her book Insuring the Essentials (1931), identified the core social insurance value as independence.

The second was Isaac Max Rubinow. In his book, The Quest for Security (1934), he identified the core value of social insurance as security.

In The Role of Social Insurance in the United States (1960), J. Douglas Brown emphasized the core values of self-reliance and dignity.

And of course, our Academy’s Founding Chair, Robert M. Ball, highlighted security and freedom as core values. In a 1961 speech to a National Conference on the Churches & Social Welfare, Bob Ball stated:

“Social insurance is based on the concept that security for the individual should, to the extent possible, grow out of his own work; under social insurance the worker earns his future security as he earns his living…Social insurance as a way of providing economic security is an important social invention, largely eliminating the old fear that meeting need will injure incentives to work and save.

The principle of nondiscretionary payments made as a matter of enforceable legal right and based on the demonstration of productive work is the very essence of social insurance. It is this principle of ‘earned rights’ which guarantees the freedom of the individual to manage his own income and prevents the conditioning of payment on any concept of acceptable behavior. In other approaches to the provision of economic security people have often had to choose security at the price of freedom, gaining their bread by accepting restrictions imposed on them by others. The method of social insurance provides the freedom that comes from an assured income that is accepted as an earned right.”

Will values emerge as a focus of the 2020 election?

Increasingly, political analysts are pointing to a 2020 campaign in which values may play a central role. American politics has typically been characterized by a clash between two fundamental values: individualism vs. egalitarianism.

In the recent past, the political emphasis has been on family values. One implicit principle of social insurance is that we are all part of a community – the human family – and need mutual support when facing adverse life events. Indeed, toward the end of his life, Bob Ball often referred to social insurance as “family protection.”

In the New York Times, David Brooks recently wrote: “If you base your political and social systems on the idea that the autonomous self-interested individual is the basic unit of society, then you will wind up with an individualistic culture that widens the maneuvering room between people but shreds the relationships and community between people.” He cited cooperation and “cooperative weaver” values as critical (“The Future of American Politics,” January 30, 2020). In a subsequent column, he wrote: “This is the year to run a values campaign, one that champions policies to make Americans more socially mobile, caring and interdependent” (February 7, 2020).

In some countries, a common value in political campaigns and related movements is solidarity. The Catholic Church, for example, recently held a forum on “New Forms of Solidarity Toward Fraternal Inclusion, Integration, and Innovation,” featuring a message from Pope Francis that focused on the common good. The notion that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers with mutual responsibilities and collective obligations is seldom mentioned in the United States outside of religious circles.

Returning to Valentine’s Day, let’s not overlook its quintessential value – love. Love for each other as human beings – deserving dignity, respect, and the opportunity to reach our full potential – may well be the ultimate value underlying social insurance. In other words, all of us for each of us. And that is no doubt why so many Americans profess their love for programs like Social Security.

Posted on: February 19, 2020


  1. Ted Marmor February 19, 2020 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    I was not able to write my
    I was not able to write my ranking of values underlying social insurance, but would rank the following 5 as my most fundamental:

    –sharing risk
    –economic security

  2. John Tambornino March 20, 2020 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Excellent and important
    Excellent and important discussion. To the above list I would add “responsibility” – collective, and typically intergenerational. And “inclusion” (though Ball emphasized that contributory social insurance – by its nature – is not fully inclusive, as it excludes non-contributors).

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