Flying with a net, literal and figurative

A woman swings from a trapeze at Gaona’s Trapeze Workshop in Woodland Hills, Calif.

In the coming months, as our lawmakers wrangle over the federal budget, we'll be hearing a lot of debate around the safety net. Who it should catch? How big or bouncy should it be? Who should pay for it?

We figured a good way to launch a discussion about that safety net, which is of course, a metaphoric safety net, would be to try out an actual safety net.  

And that brought me to a platform, 30 feet in the air, in Richie Gaona's backyard.

A woman on a trapeze platform at Gaonas Trapeze Workshop in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Gaona runs a trapeze school out of his house in Woodland Hills, Calif. I'd asked him to give me a sort of "Safety Net 101." Of course, if I was going to learn how to fall, first I had to learn how to fly. Which meant that I was also getting a crash course in trapeze.   

Before I climbed up the ladder, I wanted to know exactly what was going to be catching me, so I asked Gaona to give me a tour of his safety net. It's made of nylon. It's 55 feet long and 12 feet wide. And, sure, it's an obvious question, but I wanted to know exactly what the point of the net was:

Gaona laughed.

"It's for when we do tricks, we have the confidence to  do all those tricks and not worry about dying."

If you talk to public policy wonks, instead of acrobats, you actually get a very similar definition.

“Safety nets are there to ensure that there's a basic floor that provides resources for everyone's survival," said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a sociologist from Northwestern University.

Of course safety nets -- real and metaphoric -- cost money. A real one, according to Gaona, the trapeze teacher, goes for about $5,000. The cost of a metaphoric safety net is obviously much, much more. And that's where a lot of the debate comes in.   

On the one hand, there are the kind of concerns that Watkins-Hayes has, that "resources for low income families often end up on the chopping block when there are conversations about budget cuts."

On the other hand, there are concerns like Richard Burkhauser's, an economist at Cornell and a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.  

"Moneys from the social safety net do not come from heaven.  They come from taxes," he said.  "Americans believe that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules shouldn't be poor, but we basically made too many promises based on the taxes that are there to provide for them, and we have to make some decisions about how to balance those systems."

Which brings us to the subject of "bounce."

Richie Gaona says the best safety nets have a little bounce, which makes them safer, and softer to fall in to.  As one of Richie Gaona's youngest acrobats, Gabby, explained a, it can feel like “gigantic bed, like a hammock.”

But Gaona's got a class to run, so no one gets to stay in the net too long.  

Richard Burkhauser, the economist from Cornell, said getting people out of the metaphoric safety net is important, too.  He applauds the welfare reforms of the 1990s that emphasized work incentives and put time limits on many forms of cash assistance.  He says other programs could benefit from similar changes.

"It nudged people in to the workforce, which is what society expected of them” said Burkhauser.

That's of course controversial -- but controversy is woven in to the safety net. Metaphoric nets, and real. Richie Gaona, the trapeze artists, pointed to the issue of going wihtout a net. Turns out, it only happens in the movies. But in real life, acrobats always use a net. It's just that you can't always see them. "Some nets are black, so they blend in with the audience," said Gaona.

In the same way, government safety net programs can also be invisible, said Suzanne Mettler, author of "The Submerged State."

"It's really a bit of smoke and mirrors," Mettler said. "Usually, when people think of the safety net, they think of policies for the poor," or elderly or disabled. But, she says there is a less obvious safety net that helps middle class and wealthier people.  Things like Tax deductions on mortgage interest, that reward home owners but not renters.  Deductions on college savings accounts that go to people who can afford to save for college. Mettler says many tax credits and deductions are actually social policies in disguise, which are designed so that they "obscure government's role in helping people out to do particular things."

Another funny thing about safety nets? If you've always had one underneath you, they're easy to take for granted. Since Richie Gaona grew up in a circus family, the Flying Gaonas, he is fearless. He knows the net will catch him.

“To me, it doesn't even click that it's there. Because it's been there all my life,” he said.

Celeste Watkins Hayes, from Northwestern said a similar phenomenon happens with people who grew up in well-off families. 

"Getting assistance from parents to buy the first home, help paying for college, those kinds of thingscreate an invsible private safety net so that if you do fall into hard times you've got a wealth of assets you can call upon to protect you,” she said.  

Which brings me back to that 30-foot platform in Gaona's backyard, where I was definitely not taking the safety net for granted. With visions of too many kinds of safety nets flying through my head, I looked down at the actual one, meant to save me.

I jumped for the trapeze bar. I screamed. But I did manage to hold on. I flipped upside down, reached for the outstretched arms of my catcher, and...

I missed. The first time.

But I never would have tried, if I didn't have that net.


Watch a video of Krissy flying at the Trapeze Workshop here. And tell us what your safety net looks like, what you've had to do when times get tough.

About the author

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

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