It was not always so.
"State and federal lawmakers continually expanded the circle of public risk-management programs ... to include workers, the elderly, consumers and, in the end, just about everybody in some form or another," said David A. Moss, a Harvard University economic historian whose book "When All Else Fails" traces Washington's role as a protector of last resort.
Not everyone favored these developments. During the 1935 congressional debate over Social Security, one House member, Republican Charles A. Eaton of New Jersey, fumed: "This is a crazy notion ... that somehow ... the government of the United States can make it ... unnecessary for any of its citizens to face any difficulty, to run any risk."
But so strong was the conviction that working families needed protection, and so firm the consensus that government must help provide it, that leaders of virtually all political stripes sounded as if they were reading from the same script. It would remain this way from the New Deal programs of the 1930s through President Nixon's push for national health insurance and expanded unemployment benefits.
However, by the late 1970s and certainly by Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, new notions began to take hold, ones that turned many an established view about the needs of working Americans on its head.
The sense that something had to change — and that the free market was the answer — was fed by a variety of factors: fear that American business was being overtaken by Japan; concerns that the 1970s near-bankruptcies of Lockheed Corp., New York City and Chrysler Corp. betrayed some deep flaw in the U.S. economy; the influence of economist Milton Friedman, author George Gilder and Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley; and Reagan's sunny conservatism.
"Government is not the solution to our problem," the new president famously declared. "Government is the problem." Safety nets that were designed to help people were now said to be ensnaring them. Economic upheaval that was long thought to hurt people was now praised for sifting winners from losers. Ordinary Americans who were once simply seen as workers were now regarded as entrepreneurs and investors as well.
Along the way, wittingly or not, they became something else too: huge risk takers. Consider:
"Washington," said Hacker, "has been in a quarter-century-long retreat from what was once one of its primary responsibilities: helping provide economic security."
Paul Fredo was born in a Pennsylvania coal town called Spangler to a father who lost his mining job to automation; his pension, according to Fredo, to union corruption; and, ultimately, his life to black lung disease. The son was determined to have an easier go of it.
Fredo lifted himself up the way many poor kids do: He joined the military. He spent four years in the Air Force, including a stint in Vietnam, then went on to the University of Pittsburgh, studying accounting at night.
During his early career, he worked for a dairy, a nuclear waste processor and a company that sold tire-making equipment. His Social Security records show that his salary moved progressively higher. He earned $7,800 in 1970, $24,500 in 1980 and $51,300 in 1990.
By 1985, at age 37, he had snared a vice president's title. "I'm going up the ladder," he remembers thinking. He and Donna picked out a design from a Ryan Homes catalog and had a house built along the Ohio River north of Pittsburgh — a blue aluminum-and-brick colonial with four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths and a 15-year mortgage.