Originally appeared in New America.org
What do you think of when you hear the term “safety net?”
Maybe it conjures the image of a tightrope walker, and the web of netting beneath them. It’s this netting that allows these aerial artists the freedom to perform, even from such risky heights.
For other people, “safety net” might evoke the nets that firefighters place beneath burning buildings. These nets are insurance for the worst case scenario, for the fires that burn too fast for rescue, for people whose only escape is to jump.
As humans we do a lot of falling. As soon as we learn to walk we begin collecting bumped heads and skinned knees. As we get older the falls change, as do their repercussions. For some of us a fall might be the new venture we throw ourselves into but that never quite gets its wings. For others of us it is the health emergency that drains our bank accounts, or the eviction in the tightest of housing markets.
When we fall– because we all do– the question is: what will be there to catch us? Our savings accounts, or those of our family members? What catches those of us who have neither of these things? When we fall, the question is: do we deserve to be caught?
These were the issues we wrestled with at “Tech for the Safety Net,” a discussion in which Rey Faustino and Nicolas Colin shared their thoughts about the future of the social safety net, and the role that technology has to play in supporting it. Key topics included:
- Social service fragmentation: The government and nonprofit sectors operate in a fragmented way that can feel frustrating, but that was partially by design. Leaders like George H.W. Bush, with his “thousand points of light,” ushered in an era where the obligation for solving social problems fell primarily on under-resourced local service providers, vs. a more standardized “big government” approach. This also means that any given person trying to access help may need to stitch together these “thousand points” to make ends meet. This creates room for technologies to play a critical infrastructure role in social service systems, both in coordinating these services and in helping track and measure the impact of services on users’ lives.
- The stigma around accessing services: Nicolas noted that this is particularly American and less true in countries where it is widely acknowledged that all people benefit from government services. Rey agreed, arguing that this American “bootstrap mentality” is largely a myth, with opportunity and luck as important as hard work in giving people the environments in which they can grow, experiment and take the risks that enable social and economic mobility.
- The pros and cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI): Nicolas argued against UBI based on his policymaking experience, in which he was always skeptical of single interventions that promised they could solve for a variety of social ills. Rey, on the other hand, thought there might be a place for UBI as one element of a thriving safety net, but agreed that there can be no one “silver bullet” approach.
The panelists wrapped the conversation with calls to action. For tech executives: to engage in discussions and actions that support safety net innovation, so that community members can thrive and so tech leaders themselves can stem the increasing backlash against their companies. For interested community members: to assess who is missing from conversations about the safety net, and to pull those people in as co-creators of solutions.
Our social safety net is supposed to provide a minimum baseline of survival beyond which people cannot drop. There is much work to do to bring our current reality into alignment with that aspiration. But imagine even one step better: building a safety net so robust that it serves as a trampoline, allowing people to bounce back up and out of poverty. The “fail fast, fail often” mentality that has fueled so many Silicon Valley startups is often available only to those with their own personal safety nets — the wealth, networks, and social insurance to bounce back after a potential fall. Imagine how many more entrepreneurs would take risks if everyone knew they were guaranteed a path back to safety when they needed it.