The AtlanticIn “The Welfare State: A Terrible Name for an Essential System,” I discuss how the social safety net protects Americans from immiseration when they’re unlucky and props up consumer demand in downturns.

The welfare state is especially important for the 30% of American workers who are part-time and the roughly 8% more who are temps, self-employed, or on-call, and don’t have access to employer-provided benefits. For the most part, these workers aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance, so if they can’t find work in a recession they may rely on Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly called food stamps) to survive.

The perennial question, rehashed every presidential election season, is how robust should America’s welfare programs be? Today, the word welfare has a negative connotation, particularly among Republicans. But the concept of a basic income - now widely regarded as a fringe idea - once had the support of Richard Nixon. In the past hundred years, the welfare state has steadily and incrementally improved, from Social Security in 1935 to the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The American welfare state has the same skeleton as more robust welfare states like Denmark and Sweden. The question is how much meat should be on the bones.