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eridani's Journal
eridani's Journal
November 4, 2013

Why we should stop saying "safety net"

From an email from Northwest Progressive Institute

Lastly, we suggest you avoid the metaphor of the safety net. Let's turn to George Lakoff's Little Blue Book again for an explanation:

The language of the safety net has certain disadvantages, which conservatives have taken advantage of in referring to it as a hammock. The mental images of the two ideas are similar, but there is a deeper connection that helps promote conservative opinions about social programs.

[Editor's note: It's tough to practice framing discipline - as we can see here, even Lakoff uses the word "programs", which, as we've just discussed, is also best avoided!]

The person falling into the safety net is passive; he or she is not holding up the net, others are. But the reality is that the person who needs Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment compensation has contributed to his or her own security through a lifetime of work. The safety net image leaves out that crucial fact, allowing the hammock image to make sense. You cannot hold up the hammock you are lying in. With both safety nets and hammocks, you depend on other forces. This allows conservatives to suggest that safety nets build dependency and take away the incentive to work.

The safety net metaphor has further metaphorical implications. One falls downward into a net, as far down as one can fall. Metaphorically, control is up, loss of control is down, falling is failing, and immoral is down. The implication is that people who rely on social programs [public services, George!] are failures who have lost control of their financial lives and are immoral in becoming dependent on others. In conservative religion, falling activates the idea of a fall from grace. All this fits into the conservative moral system for politics - that people are individually responsible for their financial state, that needing money indicates a lack of discipline and incentive, and that financial hardship indicates moral failure. The safety net metaphor buys right into this.

Instead of talking about a safety net or social safety net, you can talk about guaranteeing America's social contract or upholding the American ideal.

Social Security and Medicare are part of the American ideal. When a person works hard over a lifetime, whatever her job or pay is, she is making a valuable contribution to society. America's social contract says that if you work hard, participate in your community, and take care of your family, you should be able to retire and live between jobs with dignity.

This is why we have services like Social Security and Medicare: they manage the deferred pay that we earn as Americans so it's ready for us later on. To ensure the American ideal is upheld, we should be expanding our vital public services, not cutting them.

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Gender: Female
Hometown: Washington state
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About eridani

Major policy wonk interests: health care, Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid, election integrity
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