As it stands, our social security system is a relic of the last century. It was designed to complement a group of economic policies that established employment as the foundation of economic security. Since these policies were dismantled, paid work has become more precarious and incomes have become more volatile. The system designed as a safety net has, for too many households, become a poverty trap.
By laying bare the origins of our social security system—the shifting conditions and historical accidents that have shaped it—this paper provides the background for a discussion of the types of reform needed to rebuild a system equipped to respond to the social and economic conditions of this century.