By: William Arnone, CEO, and William Rodgers, Board Chair
Well before George Floyd’s murder, we had selected as the theme for the Academy’s 2020 Robert M. Ball Award Campaign for Social Insurance “A Stronger Society, A Fairer Future.” Now more than ever, this theme guides all that we do to make social insurance more relevant to, and more effective in meeting, the grave challenges facing our country.
2020 has brought an unimaginable health pandemic, an economic catastrophe, and multiple travesties of justice that threaten our social fabric. These intertwined crises have revealed and exacerbated systemic shortcomings and injustice in our nation’s socioeconomic policies and programs, especially when it comes to the health and security of people of color.
While some measure of progress needs to be acknowledged, our focus now must be on the far-reaching improvements that are necessary to achieve the values of fairness and justice we profess to honor as part of our national identity.
As an Academy,
- We will expand our commitment to justice in our work.
- We will translate our policy work in ways that will enable grass roots organizations and their members to take action based on our findings.
- We will make more progress in attaining greater inclusion among the Academy’s Membership, staff, and interns.
- We will work collaboratively to reduce the gap between the resources of non-profit organizations led by executives of color and those with white leaders.
- We will blend intellect and heart, and remain laser focused on the inseparable link between a stronger society and a fairer future for all.
Inequality and Injustice
For those of us who lived through the sixties and took part in that period of idealism and activism with a determination to change the world, we are confronting a half century of poor results in our attempts to counter racism, alleviate generational poverty, and reduce inequality. When one of us worked for Robert F. Kennedy back then, he often responded to those who questioned whether we had gone too far when it came to civil rights and the “war on poverty” with a simple question of his own: “What if God is black?”
Over the past fifty years, we have had moments of painful truth and breaking points like today’s fury over continued injustice. Our responses have not been adequate. More of the same won’t do.
More recently, the attention paid to inequality has been somewhat mis-framed. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and his latest, Capital and Ideology, have zeroed in on the increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of us. The short-lived Occupy movement also placed a magnifying glass on the share of income and wealth held by the top one percent of the U.S. population. The more significant dimension of inequality, however, is the disparity not only in income and wealth, but also in education, housing, and health, across the broad population, which has led to the demise for many of the vaunted American dream. Much of this disparity is due to the 44 percent of the U.S. workforce in low-paying jobs, who are disproportionately workers of color, and the decades-long decline in real wages for most workers. As Academy Member Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro write in their new book, The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It: “Fighting insecurity might involve attending to some aspects of the growth of inequality, but the primary focus must be on mitigating sources of economic insecurity.” Piketty’s updated warning still remains to be heeded: “Every human society must justify its inequalities; unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.”
One of the dangers that might result from these crises, however, is a profound distrust of government in general and of the federal government in particular. Only a coordinated and consistent national response will have the potential to adequately address the needs of those mistreated and left behind. It is unrealistic now, just as it was during the Great Depression, to believe that the private sector and state and local governments are able to handle the tremendous tasks ahead.
Social Insurance’s Success and Shortcomings
Social insurance seeks to unify us as members of a community facing risks that warrant collective protection. It recognizes that we all have a stake in the well-being of each other and has served as an antidote to American rugged individualism. It counters “you are on your own” with “we are all in this together.” It reflects not only a fundamental moral commitment to the dignity of every person, but also the realization that social stability is a prerequisite to any of us being able to enjoy the fruits of our economic success. At its best, social insurance provides a solid foundation for social justice and a sturdy platform for self-reliance. Indeed, in his 1934 message to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that people had a right to three sources of security: decent housing, productive work, and social insurance, which he described as “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”
The events of the past few weeks remind us of the urgent need of a strong social insurance infrastructure. The understandable furor we have experienced is a vivid reminder of the toll that we all pay for injustice ignored or trauma tolerated.
COVID-19 has called more attention to the severe health disparities that characterize the lives of people of color. For example, the coronavirus has taken the lives of black and brown New Yorkers at twice the rate of whites. Social distancing orders have added to the stress of low-income households. State reopenings are exposing more low-paid essential workers of color in high-contact jobs to the risks of infection. The resulting economic collapse has placed the spotlight on the shortcomings of our social insurance, social assistance, and tax policies in providing a level of assured income to all and remedying deteriorating economic conditions. The brutality that has taken the lives of black Americans has illustrated the institutional racism and economic violence that remain deeply embedded in our society.
A historical reckoning is overdue. Our failure to fully correct racial injustices in our social insurance programs, together with the erosion of protections that social insurance is intended to provide at critical points in working peoples’ lives, contribute to the precariousness that has driven such a broad range of protestors to take to the streets. When the earliest social insurance programs were enacted – big and bold ideas like Workers’ Compensation in the 1910s and 1920s, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance in 1935 – many black Americans were excluded. At Social Security’s inception, farm workers and domestic workers, both groups in which low-income black men and women were (and still are) disproportionately represented, were not eligible.
While subsequent reforms have to some extent improved equitability, gaps today continue along racial lines. For example, black men have shorter average life expectancies than their white counterparts, and collect a smaller share of Social Security retirement benefits (and often experience actuarial reductions due to claiming early). They also are disproportionately employed in the industries most affected by the pandemic, and in part-time “independent contract” and so-called “gig” jobs, that COVID-19 has made deadly for many.
Given the vital role that social insurance programs play in stabilizing people’s lives and reducing insecurity, weaker protections for families of color compound the myriad other ways in which their lives are less stable and secure than those of their white counterparts. For example, having less access to Unemployment Insurance benefits when already less likely to be employed, more likely to be laid off, and last to be re-hired, is stress-inducing. Having to work in a more dangerous job with fewer protections when that danger results in a serious injury, loss of income to pay rent, and medical bills that pile up, is traumatic.
While only one aspect of a complex set of interrelated societal problems, repairing the growing fault lines in our social insurance infrastructure, and rebuilding those parts that have not worked effectively, and creating programs that address new risks, will be a demonstration of solidarity with those who are making their voices heard.
As an Academy, we pride ourselves on the intellectual capital of our Members and Staff. Deep expertise, evidence-based discourse, and thought leadership are necessary, but not sufficient, in these tumultuous times. We will expand our commitment to justice in our work, infusing our many activities with passion for solutions and compassion for those who have not benefitted adequately from our current array of well-meaning policies. We will also translate our policy work in ways that will enable grass roots organizations and their members to take action based on our findings.
Beginning with our Ball Award Campaign kick-off virtual event on June 23rd and continuing with our policy and leadership development activities – such as our series of Virtual Roundtables on the impact of COVID-19, our state-based “Main Street” webinars on Universal Family Care (starting in Minnesota in July), our Economic Security Study Panel’s examination of options to achieve assured income, and our Summer Internship program for students and future social insurance champions – we will stay focused on the inseparable link between a stronger society and a fairer future for all.
As one of our mentors, Alexis Herman, the former U.S. Labor Secretary, would say often, “We need to make the promise of America, the practice of America.” To do this we will call on you for your support and thoughts on how the Academy may make a significant difference in these distressing times.