U.S. Social Insurance: Where That Octopus Might Touch You

A young woman looks doubtfully at knitted octopus perched on her shoulder
octopus photo by Angela is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’re not American, the country’s social insurance complex of programs will most likely not touch you at all. But this post, and the following article/report from the Brookings Institute, may provide a useful reference framework from which to explore other national social insurance safety nets for citizens.

Benefit from U.S. social insurance programs does not come in the form of one convenient check or voucher with “social insurance” printed across it. It is the sum of multiple programs1. A citizen may qualify for none, one or many of these U.S. social insurance programs.

The Brookings Institute, much of their research supported by their Hamilton Project, has broken America’s social support system into five components. The article/report linked below describes the scope and nature of support programs within these five areas. It also comments on their resilience and success in the face of COVID-19, and offers links to proposals for policy change to enhance these programs in a post-COVID world.

The five program areas are:

    • education and workforce development,
    • health coverage,
    • income support,
    • nutrition, and
    • shelter.

In the shelter section, three reforms are proposed. These are specifically intended to provide support during economic downturns. The reforms would assist low income renters, low income homeowners and agencies and businesses accessing LIHTC credits to build and/or refurbish housing.

There’s an extensive discussion of how the three shelter programs could be designed. Policy makers and decision makers are probably the intended audience for the proposed reforms. However, the report is quite readable and offers design ideas for anyone interested in helping people who are at risk of losing their housing in an economic downturn.

The following link includes a summary of all program areas from the Brookings Institute as well as their full report. Links to the background reports by the Hamilton Project are also available: The critical role of social insurance in the US and policies for reform


  1. Some countries have claimed that multiple social insurance programs/ multiple payouts are a costly inefficiency. They are experimenting/committing to a more “universal” wrap-around for social support. In 2013, the United Kingdom began transition to a universal credit model that delivers social supports into one package. It’s been a bumpy ride, with much criticism Try: Universal Credit = Less Housing Security

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