I had a realization today: when we talk about ‘the poor’, we have a labeling problem. I think people are inclined, when they envision ‘the poor’, to envision a permanent underclass — the perennially helpless. The mental picture that a lot of people have is of people who were born to poor parents, will be poor and uneducated throughout their lives, and will raise children who are stuck in the same class as well for all their lives.

There may be some of that. Who knows, it may be the case that most of those who fall on hard times will spend their entire lives there. But the point is that, by envisioning the poor this way, we envision them as ‘the other’. And by envisioning them as the other, we don’t picture ourselves as people who could be poor by a stroke of fortune tomorrow. Consequently, we imagine a program like Medicaid as a program for ‘the poor’, rather than as a program that we ourselves could benefit from. We envision food stamps as something for other people. That makes it hard for us to defend food stamps as a thing *for all of us*. If the society is lucky, most of us will be altruistic enough to defend social programs for others, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Seems to me that if we really want to sell these things, we need to convince Americans that any of us could fall into the social safety net at any time. That turns Medicaid into a middle-class benefit, which the middle class should defend purely out of self-interest. (1 in 7 Americans is on food stamps. Medicaid and CHIP provide coverage to 1 in 5 Americans. There is no state, among those from which records are available, in which Medicaid pays for less than 1 in 4 births. Etc.)

As it happens, right now I’m reading a book (Frank J. Thompson’s [book: Medicaid Politics: Federalism, Policy Durability, and Health Reform]) that tries to understand whether Medicaid has the political clout to survive; and if it does, why it does. The maxim has always been that “a program for the poor becomes a poor program”; so why does Medicaid, the classic program for the poor, not become a poor program? Why does it seem to be thriving?

I recall some Jacob Hacker data showing that income variability is quite high: the probability that your income will drop by half next year is rather high; you might need that safety net after all.

Then of course there are the second-order effects of making middle-class life more predictable: if your future is more predictable, you can do more planning and long-range thinking. You can choose to stay in the community you want to live in, knowing that a layoff won’t force you to pack up and find work elsewhere. If you know your children will have health insurance regardless of whether you’re employed, you can go off and start a small business — you can take the sort of risks that society is supposed to encourage. Now that you and your neighbors are more stable, the guy running the bakery down the street knows that he can rely on a steadier stream of business; so he can plan further ahead in *his* future; and so forth. The benefits of a middle-class safety net radiate out far beyond the immediate beneficiary.

More on all of this soon. Hopefully more data, in particular.