Monday, March 23, 2009

A Fraying Social Safety Net

A reader writes:

“No matter what one’s political views about individuals bearing more risks, very few Americans are in a position to cope with their added responsibilities right now. That’s because most of the changes that have shifted new burdens to families and, in the process, moved people further out on the economic limb have occurred in ways that have masked the full dimensions of what has happened.”

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Highwire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families, the harrowing but worth-reading book by L.A. Times reporter Peter Gosselin.

The book’s premise is that the prosperity that the U.S. enjoyed until recently occurred at the same time that pieces of our historic social safety net were fraying. Pensions became a thing of the past, CEOs who oversaw massive layoffs rather than try to preserve the jobs of loyal employees were celebrated, and a series of Supreme Court decisions eroded legal means to get healthcare plans to fulfill their contracts. The result is that more families are one job loss or major illness away from certain financial ruin.

In my mind, this raises at least two issues for the portion of the nonprofit sector that provides social services:

  1. In the short-term, individuals’ more tenuous positions mean that the sector will require additional resources to meet the increased demand for services. Will the private sector be able to fill the funding gap? Is the government willing?
  2. In the long-term, I think we must examine what the social safety net should be and who is responsible for ensuring that families do not fall through the holes. The nonprofit sector is very effective, but where does government responsibility end—especially as deregulation and corporate special interests have left the average person so vulnerable. Questions include: What should the safety net cover? Who should provide it? And who should pay for it?

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