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The Future of the Social Safety Net

Thursday, Mar 17, 2016 Category Education

​​by Natalie Foster

The nature of work is changing. Many people are moving away from traditional jobs and toward gigs. The rise of the collaborative economy; the shift to living in hyper-dense, networked cities; and the increasing shift of work relationships from more stable to more temporary have ushered in a new relationship to work.

But our social safety net, the benefits and protections that evolved to support the relationship between worker and employer, have not changed. It was built for the last industrial era, one that primarily contemplated 9-to-5 work with one employer. Benefits like sick time, maternity leave, and retirement aren't available to those who work independently. How do we update our social safety net for this new era of gig work? Even more, as we move into the post-industrial age, how do we forge a new social contract that accounts for the changing nature of work?

Last year, a small group of cross sector leaders—Lenny Mendonca, Libby Reder, Greg Nelson, and I—started convening on-demand platforms, labor unions, venture capitalists, and folks from the political left and right around a different social contract for this new kind of work. The Presidio Institute was a welcoming spot for our conversations. We knew that many of the key people from each of these communities didn't yet know each other and we knew that good things would come from these unexpected relationships.

Our hunch was right. A few months later we drafted this letter on Medium with design principles for a portable and pro-rated social safety net for those who work in the gig economy, prompting a lot of great media in outlets like the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, theNew York Times, and more.

In December, we hosted an event about a new social contract at the Aspen Institute. In January, the President talked about portable benefits in his State of the Union Speech. And in February, the Department of Labor announced a $100 million fund for portable benefits demonstration projects in the President's budget.

Portable benefits was truly an idea virus that quickly spread, and the Presidio Institute played an important role in facilitating the discussion. Over the next few months, we will be working together to look for cities and states in which to implement prototypes of this idea. During this next step, we will move the conversation into communities, deepening our understanding through first hand conversations with workers, and continuing to build support and inspire change. Together, we hope to find lasting solutions to ensure a stable and flexible safety net for all workers in our new era of work, and those that are yet to come.

Natalie FosterNatalie Foster has spent the last 15 years at the crossroads of social movements and technology, and is currently a Fellow at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. Natalie has co-founded and launched to support people who work in the sharing and on-demand economy, and Rebuild the Dream, a platform for people–driven economic change with Van Jones. She was previously President Obama's digital director at Organizing for America and directed digital teams for Sierra Club and