Renée M. Landers is Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School and teaches administrative law, constitutional law, and health law. View Renée’s bio and the full Board of Directors list.

“We often manage not to see that we are ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality’.”

Eula Bliss, On Immunity, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recently, I spied Eula Bliss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation on my bookshelf and, given the current effort to achieve broad vaccination against the COVID-19 virus, decided to reread it. One of the New York Times Book Reviews 10 Best Books of 2014, On Immunity is a series of thoughtful essays exploring the concept of immunity in a variety of contexts with particular emphasis on the development and use of vaccines. Bliss’s discussion of the “proliferation of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer” and the availability of sanitizer at airports, post offices, and public libraries in response to the SARS virus in 2003, reminds the reader of a time many have forgotten and seems eerily prescient regarding the experience of the last year. While the essays respectfully discuss the different perspectives on vaccines, Bliss comes down unequivocally on the side of policies that give due regard to the science and protect the community.

The raison d’être of the National Academy of Social Insurance embodies a commitment to the interdependence inherent in the human condition that Martin Luther King, Jr., succinctly described and for which Bliss persuasively makes the case in On Immunity. By engaging the expertise of its membership (now over 1,200 professionals across the country), which encompasses a diverse range of disciplines and perspectives, along with gathering the views of other stakeholders, the Academy pursues its mission: Advance solutions to challenges facing the nation by increasing public understanding of how social insurance contributes to economic security.

The challenges presented and revealed by the pandemic offer a unique opportunity to strengthen the nation’s social insurance infrastructure. It is an honor to serve as Chair of the Academy’s Board of Directors at this poignant and exciting time.

The Academy’s recent contributions

As the pandemic enveloped most of the globe in early 2020, the social insurance programs originating in the transformational initiatives of the New Deal, augmented by the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid during the Great Society in the 1960s, and further enhanced with enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, provided a baseline of security and resiliency. However, long before COVID, the Academy warned of weaknesses in social insurance and related programs, which undermine efforts to promote broad-based economic security. The Academy has assessed a range of options and mechanisms for addressing these weaknesses. This ongoing work includes:

With the work above and other initiatives described below, the Academy is supporting the policy development processes taking place with some urgency in Congress, state legislatures, and federal and state agencies.  

The Task Force on Unemployment Insurance is examining significant reforms to the patchwork of UI supports. This study will help inform congressional efforts to develop comprehensive legislation to address the current system’s shortcomings. A number of states are also examining ways to strengthen their UI programs. Recently, one of my former students, the Chief of Staff for the Chair of the Senate Labor and Workforce Development Committee in Massachusetts, reached out to the Academy to provide expertise on reinforcing the financing of the state’s UI trust fund. Academy and Task Force Member, Ben Gitis of the Bipartisan Policy Center, consulted with members and staff of the relevant committees of both legislative houses earlier this summer.

The Academy’s COVID-19 Task Force is focused on addressing the impacts of the pandemic and policies that would better prepare social insurance programs to protect people in future such crises. In June, this Task Force issued the report of its Epidemiology Working Group. The second phase of the Task Force recently launched with a Policy Translation Working Group. This Working Group will be developing policy options to address the pandemic’s impacts on Medicare, Social Security, and other social insurance and related programs.

The job loss and disruption brought about by the public health measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the preexisting weaknesses in the social insurance infrastructure and the weak consensus about the role of government in addressing the impacts of this type of disruption, or those effects caused by environmental or other disasters. Current mechanisms for responding to such crises are not nimble, but in a series of pandemic relief measures, Congress extended the duration of unemployment benefits, authorized benefits for workers who ordinarily do not qualify because of their work status, made one-time payments to individuals, increased access to paid leave, and provided payroll subsidies to employers. While establishing extremely important lifelines, these measures were temporary, sometimes difficult to access, and of uneven impact. Subsequently, Congress has authorized payments to certain families with children, although only on a temporary basis.

Before the pandemic, the Academy’s Economic Security Study Panel had already embarked upon an examination of ways to create greater income and economic security through social insurance programs and other public policies. The report from this group will be released this fall and examines a broad range of public policies relating to labor regulation, benefits, and equity in sustaining economic security for workers and their families. Like the other policy projects, the analysis promises to be useful as Congress, states, and local governments examine ways to ensure reliable and adequate incomes for children and their families.

Our shared goals

One of the challenges that Founding Members of the Academy sought to address is the tendency to succumb to what Eula Bliss describes as “an illusion of independence” – reinforced by the emphasis in our constitutional system on individual rights. In addition, Academy founders recognized that the existence of social insurance programs is easy to take for granted, because effective programs can become invisible. Eula Bliss observes this phenomenon and notes that “the presence of regulation resembles the absence of regulation in that neither is highly visible.” I have always admired that Academy Members share the goal of bringing visibility to the vital role social insurance programs play in promoting the economic stability necessary to sustain a well-functioning democratic society.

Please join me, my colleagues on the Board of Directors, and Academy staff in striving to inject the products of our research and informed assessments into the ongoing policy formation process, especially at this inflection point for the nation and for the programs to which we have devoted our careers.

Other posts by Renée Landers:

Achieving Access to Health Care Coverage and Services to Promote Economic Security and Ability to Participate in Work

Bringing social insurance topics to your classroom with resources from the Academy