Portable Benefits Get Big Nod In Obama’s Final SOTU

state of the union 2015

Watching last night’s State of the Union was an emotional affair. The last SOTU of the Obama presidency, it was a particularly meaningful one; the empty chair left for victims of gun violence, the gravity of America’s many complicated issues, and the reality that the lectern would, in just a year, have a different face behind it weighed heavily on the room and on the millions of people watching at home.

President Obama’s remarks served both to bolster the spirits of the public and to gently wag a finger at his colleagues, many of whom made up some of the least productive Congresses of the modern era. He took jabs at climate change deniers, hate-mongers, and Ted Cruz (because who else has been hot to carpet bomb civilians in the last year?), while encouraging Americans to think of themselves as creative, innovative, and hard-working people. He, like Jay Inslee just a few hours before him, tipped his hat to the myriad jobs being created by science, technology, research, and space exploration endeavors.

He said, out loud, that we need to raise the minimum wage.

All of that was great. But the point at which I nearly spat my tea at the C-SPAN broadcast was when I heard him mention what sounded to me an awful lot like an idea put forth by our very own Nick Hanauer and David Rolf in the Summer 2015 Democracy Journal.

Here’s what they said:

“Gone is the era of the lifetime career, let alone the lifelong job and the economic security that came with it, having been replaced by a new economy intent on recasting full-time employees into contractors, vendors, and temporary workers.”

and also

“Economic security is what frees us from the fear that one job loss, one illness—one economic downturn amidst a business cycle guaranteed to produce economic downturns—could cost us our home, our car, our family, and our social status. It’s what grants us permission to invest in ourselves and in our children, and to purchase the non-subsistence goods and experiences that make our lives healthier, happier, and more fulfilling.”

In a paper called “Shared Security, Shared Growth,” Rolf and Hanauer argue that, in the new economy, worker benefits must be portable—that is, they move with the worker and are attached to them, rather than relying on individual employers to provide them. Much as our debts follow us wherever we go, so too should our health care coverage, our paid safe and sick leave, and even our vacation time.

The practice of health care benefits being provided by employers is a relatively new concept, and already one that’s being challenged, both through the ACA and by cities like San Francisco. Still, the idea of shared security and portable benefits feels a little outside-the-box, if only because, for a nation built by rugged individualism, we’re pretty comfortable with the system as it is.

obama SOTU 2016

Photo via the White House

Portable benefits have gotten attention mostly in the innovator/tech/design sector, where companies are working more and more with independent contractors, and where freelancers are setting out on their own in record numbers (we assume; freelancers are still pretty much invisible within BLS numbers). Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, and Inc. have all covered the topic.

It’s the kind of idea that people love to have heady conversations about, debating the merits of the tax system and the administration of Social Security as it currently exists. But it has yet to get truly mainstream support.

Until last night, when it became clear that it is also an idea that President Barack Obama has heard loud and clear, and maybe had some conversations about himself.

Here’s what Obama said:

“…a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security. After all, it’s not much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber.”

and then later

“…For Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today. That’s what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when we lose a job, or go back to school, or start that new business, we’ll still have coverage.”

Well, that sure sounds familiar.

I was not the only one who noticed Obama’s mention of portable benefits. In a Medium post, Institute for the Future Fellow Natalie Foster called it the “big new idea about the future of work.”

“In the aftermath of the President’s State of the Union, pundits are dissecting and debating a variety of big, important themes,” she writes. “But with just a few words in his discussion of the economy, the President created room for an idea that has the power to transform our economy: a vision for remaking a new, flexible social safety net for a new kind of work — one that could make the economy work better for all.”

As Foster points out, shared securities aren’t just for Uber drivers and the occasional freelance writer—they’re for the people who are voluntarily quitting their jobs in record numbers in the pursuit of better opportunities, for the small business owners who still want to save for retirement, and for all the people who still work two jobs and get benefits from neither.

Obama’s State of the Union contained a lot of ideas—ideas about science and gun violence and how to reach across the aisle to get things done—but his hints at worker-friendly portable benefits were especially exciting. The last SOTU is usually a hat-tip to what’s coming down the line, and a kind of stealthy signal for Americans which provide them with an idea of what to look for in a new candidate. And we are clearly supposed to be looking for a candidate who puts workers first and who isn’t afraid of big ideas which challenge the way we’ve been doing things.

As far as send-offs go, I couldn’t have asked for much better.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a reporter in Seattle. Her writing about the economy and politics has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company, and elsewhere.