When is a social problem not a “problem”?

I spend more time than most people, probably, thinking about what makes us define certain conditions as social problems, or not, and about the impact of that problem definition on the development of a policy agenda that, ultimately, we hope will lead to significant change in those same social problems.

So it was with considerable chagrin and great interest that I read The Great Risk Shift, which is basically a couple hundred pages of compelling personal stories, strong economic trend data, and fairly detailed legislative and ideological analysis that, collectively, puts a name to a social problem that is undeniably such, but which I’ve never really spent much time contemplating:

Economic Insecurity

Distinct, then, from economic inequality, which I actually use as an example of when problematic conditions are not broadly accepted as social problems, but which Jacob Hacker argues is actually far more debated than the more insidious nature of economic insecurity (and he has a good point–we do talk about rising executive pay, at least a little, but who really contests the replacement of pensions with defined-contribution plans anymore?). Distinct, too, from poverty, which, despite being a seemingly intractable part of our economic structure (and on the rise, as the 2010 Census data will no doubt show), is universally recognized as a bad thing that deserves our attention (although that’s about where the agreement ends).

Economic insecurity, on the other hand, has become such a part of what we accept about economic life in the United States that, while we may recognize and even bemoan its effects–longer work weeks to compensate for stagnant wages; an increase in work activity among retirement-aged older adults; middle-class Americans saddled with their own student loan debt into middle age, and unable to save for their children’s education; workers who stay in dead-end jobs because they’re afraid to lose their health insurance; the rise in bankruptcies associated with health care costs; the tragic incidence of home foreclosures related to risky subprime loans–we still seldom pinpoint the cause at the foundation: a conscious decision on the part of policymakers and corporate leaders to shift the risks inherent with life and, especially, productive activity, onto ordinary families.

Social workers talk about the broken social contract, about how Aid to Families with Dependent Children has become a block grant and the safety net is really more like a tattered scarf that, if you’re lucky, you might use to keep a little warm in a storm…and, I think, that this idea of economic insecurity, the idea that no matter of work effort or personal initiative or all-around ‘goodness’ can really protect us against devastating loss, is part of what we’re railing against. After all, the welfare reform bill was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reform Act”, and Hacker calls this whole dismantling of the social insurance system part of the “personal responsibility crusade”.

But, when it comes to our own lives, this social problem has become so much a part of the fabric of “the way things work” that we lack some of the language, let alone the organizing strategy, with which to name and attack it. The personal responsibility movement has, at its heart, a message that “we’re all in this alone”, and that’s part of its danger–that same message pushes people to turn inward in the face of economic threats, and, when we’re looking to ourselves to find the fault, we’re less likely to get mad and join with our neighbor to make things right.

The health care debate over the past two years has brought some of these issues into focus, and the recession certainly provides an opportunity to organize around almost-universal experiences of uncertainty and doubt, if not outright panic and deprivation, but we have to start from a common understanding of what the problem is, how we got here, and how fundamentally our own lives and the workings of our economy will need to change in order to make economic security a strong foundation for the economic opportunity about which our country claims to be concerned.

Some of the pages that I marked as I read, that I think could be part of our journey to identify the problem of economic insecurity, mobilize the vast majority of Americans who know its consequences intimately, and bring about the change that we know only concerted action can:

  • I show a chart in my Advanced Policy class about wage stagnation over the past 3 decades, and we talk about the social and economic changes (increase in women’s labor participation, increased work effort, etc…) that has wrought in U.S. families. Hacker illustrates wage volatility, which spikes in economic downturns but is alarmingly high as a baseline, and discusses the economic and emotional effects of such dramatic dips and fluctuations in pay from year to year.
  • I also spend some time comparing the U.S. welfare state to that of other developed economies (and we’re always on the low end of investments and outcomes), but Hacker points out that, including private expenditures and tax incentives, the U.S. spends a lot on health care, retirement, and disability insurance. The problem is that, increasingly, these are not secure guarantees of any kinds but a hodgepodge of mostly employer-based benefits that lack portability, universality, adequacy, and stability.
  • Precisely because economic insecurity is a problem that cuts across economic classes, we have to address classism in our society in order to fight it. Hacker doesn’t talk about this; I’m not sure why, but it jumped out at me at several points. College-educated professionals have actually seen greater wage volatility over the past two decades than those workers with less education, and many of the foreclosures and bankruptcies associated with this recession have happened in households that were previously middle-class or even upper-income earners. But, of course, classism rages in the U.S., and so many of these well-educated, previously “successful” individuals are loathe to acknowledge that their performance in the “self-reliant” category has been less than stellar, and that, indeed, they are vulnerable and victimized by many of the same economic forces that afflict those less well-positioned. Everyone likes to look to those below and say, “at least I’m not….” and, as long as we’re dividing ourselves like that, we’ll blame ourselves or those lesser others, rather than the real culprits, for the strains we experience separately, yet together. This would, of course, affect anti-poverty policy, too, since the reality is that ALMOST 60% of Americans will spend at least a year in poverty between 20-75, even controlling for those cash-poor college years. Imagine if we had an anti-poverty policy based on that picture of who’s poor (most of us!).
  • It’s economic insecurity, even more than actual income level, that’s associated most strongly with psychological distress. We social workers know that we spend a lot of time dealing with the fallout from the way that policies harm our clients. These new insights help us to better understand precisely what’s inflicting these wounds–the stress of not knowing what tomorrow will bring to our finances is, quite literally, making us sick.
  • We’re NOT doing this to ourselves. Myself, I know that I’ve been guilty of that whole “policy analysis by anecdote”, shaking my head at a friend’s purchase of a house she really can’t afford or a relative’s purchase of television so huge it scares (really) my children. My husband and I don’t buy very much, not as much because of a grand plan to provide for our economic security as because we don’t want really want very much, and so it’s easy to look at others’ decisions and raise our eyebrows. But Hacker cites data from Elizabeth Warren that illustrates pretty definitively that the income gains of the past few decades have been eaten up by the rising cost of basic household expenses–housing, health care, transportation, taxes, education, and childcare–not by our expanded expectations.

    And perhaps it’s that last point that can serve as the starting point for implementing Hacker’s three-point plan of “get wise, get mad, get even”. We do need to know what we can do to protect ourselves in the current “fend for oneself” environment–the whole “secure your oxygen mask before helping others” idea. But we can’t stop there. If we’re not responsible for this mess (as I often tell my kids!), we shouldn’t have to clean it all up. We need to agitate and organize, and build the kinds of policy structures that will bring an equitable and adequate measure of economic security to all Americans.

    In other words, let’s call it a problem and then solve it.

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  • 2 responses to “When is a social problem not a “problem”?

    1. The “personal responsibility” argument is always a good one. My social policy professor had us each talk to different people in our lives about what they thought of “welfare” and what they considered to be “welfare.” It was so interesting to hear people talk about how others lack personal responsibility when they receive AFDC or food stamps, but be OK with receiving unemployment benefits or Social Security. There is definitely a hierarchy of social programs, in terms of which are considered shameful (AFDC) and which are considered a right (Social Security.)

      • And, of course, when you factor in tax expenditures (like mortgage deductions and IRA deductions), then our understanding of what “dependence” and “responsibility” mean is revealed to be even more distorted. And, since we only even attempt to solve those problems we’ve identified as such, this understanding of problem definition suggests some of the roots of our failure to make significant progress on some of these entrenched injustices.

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