A reader recently suggested the term “safety net,” which as they pointed out, is a metaphor that characterizes our working lives as a life-threatening high-wire act. It’s appropriate, therefore, that the most popular image search result for “safety net” depicts a construction worker saved at the last minute from certain death. In the absolute best of circumstances, that is all the US welfare state offers. 

note how the net appears to be unsecured at bottom left, though

The term is habitually used by well-meaning liberals as a synonym for “welfare state,” a term rendered taboo in the US by a generation of racist dog-whistles. If you ignore the metaphor’s implications of acrobatic danger, it has the advantage of sounding, well, safe, but without much specificity about benefits and inequality. On a podcast sponsored by the University of Chicago’s business school, one co-host, an economist, invoked the metaphor to point out the need for some kind of welfare protections in neoliberal globalized market economies:

 And so, if you want to push for globalization, you need at the same time to think about some safety net to absorb some of the costs of globalization. If you want to go back, then you pay the cost of going back.

I think that, by and large, no one is proposing more globalization with better safety nets. You have people that say, more globalization, and people that say, no globalization, but the connection with the retraining, with the safety net, has been lost in many people’s view.

A bit later, he cautions against overdoing it, muddling the metaphor completely in an effort to invoke the old virtues of self-reliance and hard work: “I fear that redistribution by itself is not the solution, because, of course, you need some safety net, but you can’t have people that live under it all their lives.” We’re living under the safety net, now? It does sound safer, when you think about it, then doing cartwheels above it. 

What we mean by “safety net” matters precisely because of how many specific mechanisms of wealth redistribution have been shredded in the last 30 years. Elements of the welfare state that we have been made to find unthinkably “generous” now–like state-subsidized housekeepers for the elderly, slashed by Ronald Reagan’s 1982 budget cuts–were still treated as common-sense provisions when the New York Times profiled a blind New York woman, Claire Levy, who feared losing the benefit that winter. 

The vagueness of the term, and its implicit reference to measures of absolute, last resort–you can always cut a little more here, a little more there, “trim the fat” around the edges, as our politicians like to say–is part of its design.

The phrase first appeared in the news media in the Nixon administration, in reference to an international financial “safety net” to protect capitalist economies from shocks like the 1973 OPEC embargo. But it entered domestic policy in the Reagan administration, referring to protections for the “truly needy” that would be protected from budget cuts.

Newspaper reports from the early years of the Reagan presidency put the term in scare quotes, marking it as an invention of the president and his spokesmen. In an address to Congress in 1981, Reagan declared, “We will continue to fulfill the obligations that spring from our national conscience. Those who through no fault of their own must depend on the rest of us, the poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need, can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.” But who qualified as “those with true need”? Claire Levy didn’t. Reagan’s Secretary of Health and human Services described this category as anyone who might starve otherwise, according to a New York Times report from February 1981. Ed Meese, breaking out his trusty dog whistle, called them “the deserving poor.”

To stick with the acrobatic metaphor, it’s useful to imagine the “safety net” as a shifting set of social security measures for working people, the unemployed, children, and the elderly–that is, most people–that just gets lower and lower to the ground. Pretty soon, there won’t be any room left under it.

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