The best safety net? One man says, the smaller the better

Paul Daniels.

The social safety net and whether we as a country spend too much or too little on it are subjects of perennial, often flaring, debates.  And those debates can devolve quickly in to shouting matches. 

But people's passions are usually rooted in quieter moments-- personal experiences of needing help or giving it, that can shape a lifetime perspective. 

So here’s a modest proposal: maybe if we shared more of those back stories, they could lead to more thoughtful conversations among those who disagree.  With that in mind, we've been asking you, our listeners and readers, to share your safety net tales.  It's a series we call Show Me Your Safety Net.  Here’s one from Paul Daniels, a Marketplace listener in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. 

To understand Paul Daniels feelings about safety nets, especially ones funded by the government, you need to know a few things about him.  Daniels is a 55 year old building engineer-- that's the fancy name for a guy who takes care of an office building's heating and air conditioning and plumbing systems.  But-- here's the important part--being a building engineer is not what Paul Daniels wanted to be when he grew up.  He keeps a little homage to his true ambition in a room in his house.

“This is my dream of being a journalist, right here,” Daniels says, pointing to a type writer and a bottle of Crown Royal.  Then he pokes at a few sticky keys on the type writer.  “It actually doesn’t work,” he laughs.  “It’s broke.” 

Part of why Daniels did not become a writer has to do with a piece of advice he got as a kid, growing up in a working class family in a suburb of Detroit. 

“I always used to say to him be a something,” says Lucille Daniels, his 87 year-old mother.  She lives with her son, now that she's too frail to live alone.

“Take up a trade--carpenter or electrician or whatever.” his mother remembers telling him.  “Would’ve been nice if he'd been a doctor or a lawyer. But how many people do that?” 

‘Work Hard and Be Ready for Tough Times’

Paul Daniels remembers his mother’s advice as a sort of warning.  “I say that I was a depression child by proxy.  My parents-- especially my mother-- were absolutely destitute during the depression,” Daniels says.  “Her father lost his job.  They had a child die.  They lost their home.  My mother drummed in to our heads that you better work hard and be ready for tougher times.” 

For a while at least, that message competed with other messages Daniels was hearing. 

Some came from people at school.  “I couldn't spell to save my life, and yet when I would write something, the teachers always just raved about it,” Daniels says.

Others came from newspaper editors who published a handful of articles he wrote, which he keeps in a stack in his house.  “The Troy Sommerset Gazette!” he smiles, filing through the clippings.  “Those were the first people to encourage me to pursue my writing.” 

And of course there were the invocations Daniels heard “at every commencement I've ever been to, follow your dreams.”  And as tempting as that suggestion was, Daniels was, in the end, skeptical.  “I think, ‘Well fine, follow your dreams.  But if they don't work out, don't blame anybody else for them because that was a choice you made.” 

The choice Daniels made was to walk away from his original dream.  He says it involved a painful calculation. 

“I might've become a well known writer,” he says.  “But I think the chances of that were very slim.  To take that risk…..”

He pauses. 

“I just didn't want to end up becoming broke in my old age. So I worked--worked some jobs for companies that I hated, to support myself.  And so someday, I will be able to retire.”

 The trade-off still haunts him.  But it's a trade-off he thinks not enough people make.

“I've been killing myself  my entire life to take care of myself, and I see other people collecting.  I'm paying, and their collecting.”

Which brings us back to the social safety net. The "collecting" Daniels is talking about is collecting money from government assistance programs. 

“I’m not saying that I’ve never received unemployment in my life,” he says.  “But I know a lot of people that collect unemployment, and it’s not like they need to.  It’s more like a lifestyle.”

And this is where things get tricky.  Yes, Daniels admits he’s used a few government safety net programs himself-- a couple months on unemployment insurance years ago, a federal student loan in college, a home mortgage interest deduction that reduces his housing costs.

But—he feels like mostly he’s made his safety net himself, through sacrifice.  And he doesn’t have much sympathy for those who, as he sees it, have not.

And that’s the thing about safety nets:  their usefulness can be in the eye of the beholder.  You know why you need one when you need it.  But when you see someone else need one, it’s a judgment call.

Following His Dreams, After All

There is a post script to this story.

Eventually, Daniels did actually do the whole following-your-dreams thing.  After he worked as a building engineer at Kmart for fifteen years—a job he detested, he quit.  He’d saved enough money to travel through Africa for a year.  Then he started taking jobs that could finance his appetite for adventure.  He has worked as a building engineer for the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and at the US research station in Antarctica. 

A few years ago, he made a documentary about his time working in the South Pole.

He paid for the movie himself.  Did all the camera work himself, and hired someone to edit it.  The film made it in to a handful of festivals.  And made his mother proud.

“Whatever he wants to do he accomplishes,” she says.  “Hard work and his strong...” she searches for the word, until her son finishes her sentence. 

“Will,” he says. 

And it is those three things-- hard work, strong will, and saying no to dreams you can’t afford to pursue—that Daniel says define his safety net. Still, he says, he wishes he could have been a full time writer.  

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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