Tag Archives: social policy

Not predictions. Just aspirations.

I cannot even pretend to know what this year has in store.

At this point, I’m just wondering what Christmas must feel like for people for whom it isn’t just “the calm before the legislative storm”.

You know that feeling, when you wake up in the morning and remember that something is terribly wrong, and it takes you just a minute to figure out what it is?

I have had that feeling every single day since August 7th.

Here in Kansas, 2013 could be a really, really long year.

But I’m a strengths-based social work practitioner. I am an organizer. An advocate.

And, I think still sometimes, an optimist.

So, instead of predictions about this year just-upon-us, I just have some hopes. Even dreams. And some resolutions, about my small piece in this puzzle.

What are yours? What are your aspirations for 2013? What are you committing yourself to do, in pursuit of them?

And, if anyone does have a crystal ball, will you share?

I hope:

  • that, when our legislature inevitably overreaches, in their ideological zeal, we can get people to pay attention, because I just don’t believe that most Kansans (or, fill in the blank, if your state is headed in that same direction) share a vision of the U.S. in which everyone is responsible for themselves and the commons is put to the curb.
  • that the ‘we need to soften the rhetoric on immigration’ rhetoric (let’s be honest, here) translates into real ideas and real momentum for immigration reform, not a reprise of tired and unworkable ideas designed to let politicians say that they’re ‘coming to the table’.
  • that we can–in Kansas, at the U.S. Supreme Court, and in states around the country, stave off some of the most permanent policy changes that would mean that even a reversal of political fortunes would have relatively little impact on future policies. In Kansas, we’re looking at the very real possibility that the legislature could amend the constitution, taking out, for example, the requirement that the legislature make ‘suitable provision for the financing of public education’. We can’t get that back.
  • that we can reclaim the narrative about work–who does it, what it means, and why it matters–in this country, in sharp contrast to the current debate, where we revere workers except for when they want a decent union contract (when firefighters become freeloaders, inexplicably) or affordable health care.
  • that the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, as we move towards full implementation, work in much the same way as then-reviled Social Security, which, once people have gotten used to it, has become not only ideologically palatable but also political untouchable. It’s one thing to hate a program that isn’t doing anything for you; it’s quite another to look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • that there is at least a bit of a lull in the federal campaign season, not because I’m anti-campaigning, obviously–I believe that they are essential venues of policy contest–but because I think our polity needs a bit of healing, and I don’t see that happening if we immediately pivot to 2014, and beyond.
  • that the U.S. Supreme Court rules that arbitrary restrictions on who can marry are as anathema to our constitutional protections today–when it’s gender at stake–as when we based the limits on race. Ultimately, the parallels between where the GLBT equality movement and the civil rights movement for people of color are, in terms of positioning in the electorate and the courts, are limited; I believe that marriage equality is inevitable, while we have obviously still struggled to desegregate with anything resembling deliberate speed, but, still, a shot of adrenaline wouldn’t hurt.

They are dreams. Please don’t hold me to them.

But, to get there, I’m resolving to:

  • read more. I am surrounded by words all the time, but I don’t spend nearly as many hours as I would like reading really challenging material that makes me question how and what I think. I need to be more informed, despite a wealth of information.
  • actively mentor direct social workers interested in advocacy. I’m not at the point in my career, yet, where I see myself as a ‘mentor’, really, except to my students, but I know that there are social work direct practitioners who want and need guidance on how to weave advocacy into their work, and I think that I can help them, so I’m going to try to seek people out and make myself available, for support and encouragement and some free technical assistance.
  • register some voters, apart from a campaign cycle, just because they need to be heard.
  • write at least two letters to the editor. I have good luck getting things printed, but it’s been awhile since I submitted anything under my own name, not as a part of my work, just because it matters to me. I’ll get that done this year.

And I need to exercise more, and spend more time with my kids without looking at a screen. And I’d love to get a little more sleep.

Here’s to a new year.

Why a safety net still matters

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow on the safety net–what it is, how it is threatened, and why it should matter to all of us.

If you’re in the Kansas City area, you should totally come.

Much of the presentation is evidence on what we know to be truths: the safety net has too many holes–and people are falling through; the short-term effects of the recession and the longer-term reshaping of our economy place increasing strains on the safety net; and the safety net’s reach is inadequate to cushion all those who really need it (because benefits are too meager and eligibility criteria too tight).

I trace the origins of these threats to the safety net to an overlapping set of ‘culprits’: tax cuts that erode the revenue foundation, the budget cuts we have chosen over other alternatives, the preference for privatization and block grants instead of entitlements, the recession and its exposure of the fragility of the safety net, and the overt attacks on the poor (more on that tomorrow!).

But the piece that I think may have the greatest impact on the audience is my contention that part of how we get to a better place is by celebrating the safety net and all that it does for our society.

Yes, we absolutely need to put the safety net in its proper ‘place’ in our economy. We need good jobs that pay well, and the safety net should be a place of refuge, not a way of life. No one grows up dreaming of the day when they can receive emergency food assistance.

But the safety net, when it’s structured appropriately and (critical point) funded adequately, really works.

That’s something that often gets lost in the rhetoric (from one side) about a ‘Food Stamp culture’ (what, in the world, that is, I do not know) and (from the practitioner side) complaints about the gaps and their failures.

But we cannot save that which we are always so busy complaining about.

So understanding, and, yes, celebrating, the role of the safety net is important. We know a lot more today about the impact of safety net programs, because of the Supplemental Poverty Measure. And we need to start sharing what we’ve learned.

  • Without government assistance programs, the poverty rate would have been nearly twice as high in 2010:  an estimated 28.6 percent, compared with the actual figure of 15.5 percent.  If the safety net hadn’t existed, another 40 million people would have been poor.
  • The number of young adults with private health coverage has risen by ~2.5 million because of the Affordable Care Act.
  • In 2009, the Kansas EITC returned more than $81 million to low-income Kansas taxpayers.
  • Despite increased poverty and unemployment, hunger did not increase during the recession, largely due to investments in SNAP.
  • Social Security lifts more than 20 million Americans out of poverty, including more than 128,000 seniors in Kansas and more than 1 million children nationwide.
  • Federal rental assistance programs lifted about 3 million families out of poverty in 2010.

We know, of course, that these data are only part of the equation, though. What are your stories about why the safety net matters, and what stories do you believe we need to tell, about why there should–really–be something to catch people when they inevitably fall?

Quality of Life, and Building it for my Kids

**I’m still catching up on posts about all of the reading that I did between Thanksgiving and the beginning of February–my most prolific reading period of the entire year, for sure–and slowly going through the pile of sticky notes that I accumulated as I processed what I read, and what it made me think.**

This week, I have three posts related to the really excellent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. You should totally read the book, which is full of data that turns what we think we know about poverty, and wealth, and well-being, on its head.

But, as usual, this isn’t so much a traditional ‘review’ as it is my reflections on what a particular concept means for me, and, I hope, for us.

Every parent wants a good quality of life for her/his children, right? I mean, I know not just for my neighbors–here in this pretty affluent suburb–but also for the immigrant parents with whom I have the honor to work, it’s the hope that the future holds something promising, and secure, and healthy for one’s children that motivates much of what we do.

But thinking about what the evidence says about real quality of life, and about how to get it, must provoke a reconsideration of our pursuits. Because, increasingly, we know that having more doesn’t mean having it better.

In the United States, especially for those not in the lowest income tiers, we’re reading the limit of what increasing living standards can offer us, in terms of health and life expectancy and all-around wellness.

In fact, we know that, inequality matters a lot in determining how healthy people are, how much they learn, even how happy they feel, even controlling for income.

It matters even more than we want to admit, because acknowledging how important equality is in shaping our own well-being means that we have to spend more collective energy (and public resources) figuring out wealth distribution instead of trying to get as much as we can for ourselves, or even just adding to the total aggregate.

Mental illness rates are higher in societies with more inequality, with even health among higher-income populations affected by overall levels of inequality.

It’s not enough to have ‘enough’ for yourself.

You’re harmed, in some real, tangible ways, as well as some more subtle psychological ones, by the existence of others who have far less than enough.

And less than you.

We know that from data, but we know it from our lived and practice experience too, right?

I see the anxiety around me, from parents who put their 5-year-olds in tons of activities because they want to produce ‘well-rounded scholars’ (yes, they use that phrase) to neighbors who reluctantly acknowledge that they’re in deep debt because of out-of-control spending to couples whose marriages fall apart because of the strain of overwork. I see a harsh side of inequality in the smugness of those who accept mediocrity from our public school system, secure in the knowledge that it’s still better than what other kids get.

It’s not ‘cultural’, this stress and malaise and vindictiveness.

It’s born of the proximity of desperation, and the knowledge that we are but a few ‘failures’ away from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, which seem like such a long way down. It’s exposed by the tattered safety net and the panicking realization that there’s very little to catch us if, or when, we fall.

It’s a special kind of insecurity that can only be mitigated by building a society where everyone has enough, because we can never hoard enough for ourselves to feel safe.

And that gets me to thinking about our kids, and to facing the awareness that I cannot protect them, as long as I’m only trying to protect them.

Because I want BETTER for my kids, not better like iPads for my 3-year-olds but better like believing that people take care of each other when it’s needed, that belonging to a society comes with certain guarantees, and that no one should have too much…or too little.

There’s always a bright spot

My favorite story from Switch is about the mothers in Vietnam, and how an anti-hunger campaign there, rather than beginning with an exhaustive study about all of the factors that perpetuate the problem of child malnutrition, instead started with a search for where things were going well.

And then set out to replicate those bright spots.

Over and over and over again.

This idea aligns with how I teach social policy from the strengths perspective, taking the stance that policy approaches that build from the good things that are happening, even in the midst of social problems, will be ultimately much more successful.

It’s how I parent, too, consciously trying to spend way more time talking with my kids about what they’re doing well than about what needs to change. Because it’s really true, at least with my 3-year-old twins, that focusing on the problems mainly get you more problems.

Strengths-based social workers spend a lot of our time defending ourselves. Because, no, focusing on strengths does not mean that we ignore the problems. Or that we’re all Pollyannas. Or that we pretend that things will take care of themselves. Strengths-based social policy isn’t unrealistic.

To the contrary: it’s what works.

Because it begins from what’s working.

There are a variety of reasons why focusing on these bright spots–again, even in the context of real challenge (think: child starvation)–works, all of which will be familiar to strengths-based direct practitioners, too:

  • Beginning with a nod to what’s already going well is like starting halfway there, and that breeds hope which, in turn, gives us momentum for greater changes
  • Sometimes we can’t fully understand a problem, but we can zero in on the places where, even inexplicably, things are going well, to try to mirror that
  • In the policy context, we can bring more people to our cause by rallying them around a possibility than guilting them into caring about our disasters
  • Strengths-based policy development builds on a different process, not just a unique product; if we’re going to solve this problem by following the leads of those who have already partially solved it, then we are by default going to involve those folks more actively in the solution, rather than give them a list of directions to follow. It’s no surprise which works better (another way in which parenting is like social change!).

    All of this has me thinking about bright spots, an exercise which, I’ll admit, is a bit foreign to me, as someone who is uncomfortably attuned to the injustices and inhumanities that populate our world.

    But there are some, and I think that we’re already learning from them. What about the teenager who makes it out of a poverty-ridden neighborhood, later to credit the mentor or one caring adult who shepherded her? Why can’t we build systems that provide those shepherds for everyone? What about the welfare office that locates in a school, and sees intake rates skyrocket as barriers are erased? Why can’t we take down hurdles everywhere? What about the backpack programs that send nutritious food home with kids from school and significantly reduce food insecurity? Why can’t we make sure that every hungry child has one?

    Looking for bright spots, to me, is more than just a reflection of an ideological preference for positivity.

    It’s about turning technical problems into political ones.

    Finding what works allows us to stop pretending that we don’t know how to solve the problems that face us–or at least how to begin to solve them–and requires that we focus, instead, on overcoming our resistance to solving them.

    Which means that we need to look for other bright spots, then: the places where movements of people have, as only movements of people can, summoned the political will to light bright spots all over the place.

    To light.

Shrink your bucket: maybe ours aren’t ‘people problems’

Tomorrow’s post is about how, in the realm of advocacy and social action, we can’t rely on the same environmental changes that marketers and athletic trainers and others use to motivate people to take action more easily. Because, after all, if advocacy is so easy, doesn’t it lose some of its impact?

But that’s enough of a spoiler.

Because I’m still thinking through this whole “how much do we focus on motivating the individual to change, versus change the context in which the change needs to occur” question. And I’m thinking that, in social policy, there’s a pretty good argument to be made for bucket-shrinking, and that social workers would be well-served to shift some of our advocacy efforts towards those policy solutions that focus on the size of the bucket, and not the decisions people make in response.

See, there’s this popcorn bucket study in Switch that is pretty compelling–essentially, researchers found that they could make people eat more, or less, popcorn just by changing the size of the bucket.

Just the bucket. That’s all that was different.

There are all kinds of applications for this bucket shrinking in the social policy world, some of which are among our greatest policy successes. What if we made cars safer, so that even really bad driving isn’t as likely to kill anyone? What if we made food safer, so that fewer people contracted foodborne illnesses? What if we built highways everywhere and defunded public transportation, so that people learned to think that they need to drive themselves everywhere? (OK, I know, but that last one WAS successful, if that had been our goal!)

What if we applied this bucket-shrinking approach to the social policy realm?

What if Election Day was a holiday, so people would be more likely to vote (especially if they didn’t have to register in advance)? What if we gave everyone time off work to participate in their kids’ schools, instead of complaining that “parents aren’t involved”? What if we co-located services, so that it is easier for parents to, say, stay up on their kids’ immunizations and get their own cholesterol checked? What if insurance paid for mental health check-ups every year, just like physicals? What if credit cards weren’t so easy to use, and debt not so hard to avoid? What if every child in poverty knew that college was paid for?

What if, instead of just telling people over and over again, with exhortations and graphic warnings and shiny social marketing, that they should really, really eat less popcorn…we just made the buckets smaller?

Where, in the social policy issues you care about, is there a need for a different bucket size? How would changing the incentives, and the costs, make a difference? What are the limits of these contextual modifications, and what kinds of policy approaches would test those? How do social workers ensure that individuals’ right to self-determination is protected, without confusing true self-determination with the unnecessary divorce of context and behavior? Why do we focus so much on the individual, scratching our heads and wondering “what is WRONG with ‘these people’, that they eat SO MUCH popcorn”…instead of just making the buckets smaller?

Grown-ups need villages, too

"Happy Villages" quilt

By far, my absolute favorite part of teaching is when my students come up with insights that make me think about social work, or social justice, in a different way. In those moments, it goes beyond the “I’m learning just as much as you are” (which always sounds a little false to me, honestly, even though I certainly do learn every semester) to produce these real “lightbulbs” of understanding, for which I am always truly grateful.

One of those moments happened in a discussion board interaction with a student in my community and organizational theory class. She was reacting to a post about the social work profession as somewhat uniquely, among the helping profession, focused on the person-in-environment, and relating this to the axiom that “it takes a village to raise a child.” She made the point that it is truly a bit bizarre that we can see (although we certainly don’t always live it out in policy!) how children are affected by their environments, and how crafting healthy institutions that surround kids with supports is an essential element in raising strong youth, but yet, somehow, when these young people grow up, we reflexively attribute their challenges to personal failings, and look for their internal pathologies, as though, well, grown-ups don’t need villages too.

I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the supports on which I depend to raise my children these past few months: the grandparents whose presence in their lives is constant and nurturing, the neighbors whose friendship and presence sustain us during our days, the public spaces that provide us with a greater quality of life, the schools that are shaping their minds.

But my student’s post prompted my thinking about how our need for these kinds of supports–both formal and informal–certainly don’t end when we magically become adults, or restart only when we ourselves become parents. In truth, our entire lives are bracketed by a mutual interdependence on the environments in which we either thrive or struggle to survive. And social workers (and policymakers) misunderstand this at our collective peril.

Certainly, children’s futures are shaped by the context in which they grow up. And I think there’s a growing acceptance of that idea.

But adults’ todays and tomorrows are just as influenced by these environmental factors, and not just in a carryover sense from their own childhoods, but in a very real way as “grown-ups”: the availability of jobs, their access to health care and transportation, resources for mental health care, supportive social networks, physically strong community infrastructure.

We obviously have a long way to go in order to build “villages” that will surround our children with the opportunities they need to succeed…and the nets they need to catch them when they fall. And adults will carry the legacies of these disparities and inadequacies until we can get that right.

But then, as my student to wisely realizes, we need to apply that same understanding of shared responsibility and linked fates to how we work with other populations.

Including the grown-ups we hope those kids will become.

A Diary of a Social Worker in the Political Arena

**Note from Melinda: I asked Becky Fast, whom I have known since my undergraduate days (when she was my boss!) to write a reflection about her decades as a professional social worker immersed in the political realm, always with a laser focus on upholding the mission of our profession and advancing our collective values. I am honored that she agreed to do so and thrilled to share this inspiring post with you. Becky has graciously agreed to share her email address, too, for those interested in pursuing this path–I can say from personal experience that she is an excellent mentor! blfast at msn.com

My venture into politics began advocating for the rights of my brother with Downs Syndrome to access regular education. At a young age, I observed first-hand how public laws and regulations excluded full participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.

I was attracted to the profession of social work because of my desire to be a social activist. I had a desire to change the world in such a way that others wouldn’t have the childhood experiences that I had. I was attracted to the mission of the profession to uplift people and to improve the quality of their lives.

Social work when practiced at its best is about social change and social justice. Yet – I was greeted with mixed reactions from my social work colleagues when I decided to detour for 12 years from direct practice to a career in political social work as an aide to a U.S. Congressman. I found it perplexing to encounter a long-standing and pervasive belief that social workers are to be apolitical in their approach to professional practice. I found social workers embracing public service, volunteerism, and community organizing but they were conflicted about direct involvement in politics.

The Institute for the Advancement of Political Social Work Practice at the University of Connecticut-School of Social Work under the leadership of Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys helped me to see that I wasn’t abandoning my profession by working as a political social worker. I began to see that everything I learned through my MSW education and field practice experience is what exactly a politician needs to be successful. Over the years, I found my professional knowledge critical to candidates for office and elected officials as they formulate social policy decisions.

In my role as the Director of Casework for a U.S. Congressman, I handled individual and community problems with federal policies and programs including Medicare, Social Security and Veterans Benefits. When individuals or groups would have similar problems, it was my responsibility to report to the Congressman and assess if a change in federal legislation was needed.

Our daily lives as social workers are often based on actions taken in the political arena. My current job as a hospice social worker is dependent in a large part upon helping families access the Medicare hospice benefit. Our nation’s support for housing, health care, childcare, and education for the disadvantage and vulnerable are all made by politicians and government officials. As programs and services are slashed and cut from the statehouse to the white house, social workers involved in politics are needed now more than ever as our clients lose their jobs, housing, and health insurance from financial insecurity. Many of our clients with the least amount of resources carry the heaviest social and economic burdens.

Politicians change policy that either will help or hurt our profession and our clients. Social workers working on the “inside” as elected officials, lobbyists, campaign workers, staff and as a part of coalitions are needed to insure political empowerment of the populations we serve.

Empowering ourselves and our clients by becoming more active in political processes is a core tenet of social work and what political social work practice is all about. More politically empowered social service professionals and clients will improve the public policy decision-making and the services provided.

Being involved in politics doesn’t have to be a career it can also be as simple as writing an email or making a phone call to an elected official about a proposed budget cut. If you are considering getting involved in political advocacy please join me because only together can we effectively fight against poverty, racism, and injustice.

Solving my babysitting problems while promoting intergenerational policy convergence

March 16, 2010 Rally for Public Schools, Topeka, KS--my parents, kids, and I are standing just out of view to your left

I won’t try to pretend that my main motivation for having my kids’ grandparents babysit them so much is to spur increased commitment on the part of each (kids and grandparents) to the kinds of intergenerationally equitable policy solutions that are so often elusive, or at least presented as such, particularly in the areas of entitlement reform, taxation, and budget cuts.

But I really think it’s a side benefit.

Okay, so my kids are too young to voice their support for productive aging strategies, universal design, and a robust income support policy for older adults. The younger two are still working on talking, and the older one is currently obsessed with Captain Underpants, so we’ll give them a little time.

But my parents get it, I think more than many retired people, and they pay more attention, which is perhaps just as important. And, granted, some of that could be because they’re my parents, and they’re wonderful, and they have to listen to me going on and on about this and that policy debate all the time.

But I think there’s good evidence, anecdotally at least, that their frequent, sustained, and meaningful contact with my kids changes their perspective on policies that affect children and young adults, in ways that have potentially powerful implications for building public support for the kind of policy infrastructure that all generations need and deserve.

  • When they pick my son up at preschool, they see what well-paid early childhood educators working in a clean and spacious environment can do with little kids, and they recognize the importance of every child having access to such a resource.
  • When they take my sick daughter to the doctor, they are reminded of the importance of each child having a medical ‘home’ and the insurance coverage to pay for it.
  • When they see the twins’ faces light up at the public park, they think about the erosion of quality public spaces and the need to preserve areas where children can play safely.
  • When they hear my older son’s friend talk about how he was supposed to go to all-day kindergarten but can’t because his parents can’t afford it, they realize that many programs within our “public” schools aren’t free, and that young families face real challenges in providing for their children’s educations.
  • When they hear my voice on the phone, trying to sound calm as I tell them that the other babysitter cancelled and I’m supposed to give a speech in an hour, but it will take me 40 minutes to get there, they remember (as they grab their keys) that childcare arrangements are precarious for so many families, and that parents can’t work unless someone is providing good, quality, affordable care for their children.

    I would never discount the very real struggles of grandparents raising grandchildren–I, too, am reminded of the importance of supports for older adults when I see my parents’ relief when I pull up to take over the childcare once again–nor do I naively assume that seeing need in the eyes of one’s own grandchildren automatically translates into commitment to meet the needs of children everywhere.

    But I see how my Dad learns so much about our community, and the realities of young families, while he’s watching the kids play at the sandbox and talking to (as he calls them) “the other moms”. I see how my Mom reads the whole newsletter that my son brings home from school, and often asks me questions about it. I see how their lives become integrated with those of other generations as they learn to inhabit the same spaces, and share the same resources, and I think…maybe I’m onto something after all.

  • I’m a “values” voter

    Values: emotion-laden beliefs about how things should or should not be

    Um, yeah, I’ve got a lot of those.

    I believe very strongly in a vision of how the world should be: a more just distribution of resources, opportunities for all children to be safe and to learn, supports for families of all configurations, core human and civil rights for all persons, a healthy environment for this generation and those to come.

    I have definite emotions wrapped up in those values, and strong emotional responses–anger, sadness, elation, hope, fear, disappointment–associated with our movement towards or away from that vision.

    And I have policy preferences that stem from those values, as an expression of those values and the strategies I see as most promising for bringing them to fruition.

    And my desire to see those policies enacted drives my voting behavior, my political contributions, my willingness to volunteer for candidates, and, yes, my interpretation of “objective facts.”

    Even though I’m a sometimes social scientist, then, I make no effort to pretend to divorce my values from my perceptions of reality. I know that they are a lens through which I see the world. I know that there are words, and images, that are, for me, powerful activators of my political motivations, and that I’m instinctively biased against a candidate who talks about the “death tax” or “the gay lifestyle”.

    Objectivity is overrated.

    Really.

    And it’s really unattainable anyway.

    So, this election, I’m claiming my identity as a “values voter”, someone who makes every decision about for whom I’m going to vote (or for what) based on the values that I hold most dear, and only secondly on my logic-based assessment of how well a given policy or candidate will advance those values.

    What about you? What values will motivate your vote (and your decision to vote) next Tuesday? How do your values influence how you see the “facts”? And how will you communicate these values to candidates and organizations seeking your support?

    Of silver linings–the policy ‘good’ that may come from all the recession ‘bad’

    Because I don’t in any way wish to give the impression that I’m celebrating the pain that the current recession is bringing to individuals, organizations, and entire communities in the United States and around the world, maybe the title for this post should instead be, “Things I’m Really Glad We’re Not Talking So Much About Anymore.”

    But I really do believe that there may be some long-term good, in terms of the shifting of policy priorities in the country, to come from this widespread, deeply-felt, and sustained period of economic downturn. That’s one of the lessons that we should take from the social reforms achieved in the last, still worst, economic depression this country has seen.

    The whole “personal responsibility crusade”, while certainly a seed of inspiration for the Tea Party folks and some other anti-Obama campaigners, has fallen quite dramatically from favor. We don’t have to read one news story after another about various proposals for Social Security privatization. No one’s credibly talking about replacing Medicare with health savings accounts. Being unemployed is no longer assumed to be code for being uneducated, unmotivated, or criminal.

    There is an understanding, not insignificantly, that bad economic things happen to really “good people”, and, even more importantly, that government should play a role in cushioning the blow when people fall victim to these economic forces and, even, (!) seek to prevent some of the falls in the first place.

    Sound familiar?

    So, in addition to health care reform that addresses many (but not all) of the concerns Hacker outlines in the chapter on “Risky Health Care”, we have student loan reform that makes college more affordable (and loan repayment more feasible), and a push for financial reforms that would curb some of the banking practices that heightened the risks Americans face.

    Those are obviously big things, and we can and must work very hard over the next few years to achieve more legislated “bricks” in a secure economic foundation.

    But I’m perhaps even more hopeful about some of the changes in attitudes about the appropriate relationship between a government and its people–more questions asked about how 401(k)s are supposed to provide retirement security when so many have lost so much in their accounts, more student protests against tuition increases in higher education, more recognition that health care should be a basic right rather than a chance happening.

    And, while I certainly wish that we could undo the economic damage we’ve sustained in these past 3 years, I celebrate the beginning of the reversal in the inward-looking, self-blaming, isolating exaltation of personal responsibility, and believe that this is our best chance in quite awhile to dispel the idea that we deserve to shoulder all of the risks and yet receive few of the spoils associated with economic life in 21st century America.

    But those clouds are lifting, so we must find ways to harness this shared sense of vague insecurity and turn it into a strong movement for social change, if we are to weave a safety net that will actually catch us the next time we fall. Because this surely won’t be the last recession, but it can be the last one that Americans have to weather alone.