The Academy launched its Economic Security Study Panel in November 2019, asking a panel of 30 experts from a variety of disciplines to inspect various avenues by which we might address gaps in our existing economic security system. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Below, Kathryn Edwards, Principal Investigator for the Study Panel, discusses the current and future changes the Panel is examining in light of the pandemic.

Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic disruptions influenced the work of the Economic Security Study Panel?

A: The pandemic and resulting economic depression didn’t change anyone’s mind about what we’re trying to do, but gave us a renewed sense of purpose for finding ways to address the risks and unexpected economic threats that a worker, a family, or a business can face. We had been asking what’s the worst-case scenario and how can public programs be reformed or created to help people maintain economic security. In the middle of that discussion the worst-case scenario happened.

Q: Reporting on the pandemic has put a face on those who are suffering as a result of widespread inequality, making it impossible to ignore. Do you think the workplace disruptions will create a new environment or understanding for the importance of social insurance policy work?

A: Yes, a new understanding. One of the biggest challenges in the concept of social insurance is getting someone to understand that economic risks don’t just happen to other people. So often you hear: “The only people who lose their job in a recession are people who aren’t good workers; that won’t happen to me.” Or, “the only people who need Social Security are people who don’t know how to save or invest; that won’t happen to me.” This idea that risk only happens to “other people” will be a lot harder to believe when we get through this pandemic, because the job loss is staggering and the loss to communities is truly overwhelming. When we tell people that social insurance is about risk outside of your control, it may resonate with them in a way it hasn’t before.

Q: When will the Study Panel’s final report on policy options be available?

A: We are working to have a report and all derivative products at the start of next year (2021). We will write a classic, exhaustive report that outlines a set of policy options to achieving economic security and assured income. We will use this report as a starting point for other products. We are thinking broadly, such as: short commentaries that provide a historical and economic narrative of groups slighted by social insurance in the past, like immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and black workers; white paper summaries of each policy option; and interactive graphics. We are hoping to accompany the report with point/counterpoint discussions, asking Panel Members in pairs to discuss a policy area, with one Member advocating for option A and one for option B.

With a report like this, there are numerous possibilities for web features as well. We can look at past crises from the perspective of having or not having assured income—what policy options or economic assistance could we have used during the Flint Water Crisis, for example, and what do we think it might have achieved? What about Hurricane Katrina? Examples like these can give wider audiences an idea of what we’re discussing when we say there are widespread economic risks out of individual control, and that in many cases the most economically efficient way to deal with that risk is social insurance.

More about Kathryn Edwards

Kathryn Anne Edwards is an associate economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research spans diverse areas of public policy, including the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education pipeline and labor market; the financial resources available to unemployed households; the challenges in retirement facing older Americans; and the labor market issues for workers without a college degree. Edwards completed her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. She has been a Member of the Academy since 2015. In 2012, Edwards co-wrote the Academy’s Young Person’s Guide to Social Security, co-released with the Economic Policy Institute, where Edwards was a Research Assistant at the time.

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