Level 3 students spend the year learning and writing ten different types of essays that traditionally are taught in college freshman English classes. While they are learning and writing with these models, they are also researching for the final paper of the year, the Super Essay. The subject of the Super Essay is “A Great Idea Gone Wrong,” and the students pick their own subjects with guidance from me; some “Great Ideas” just don’t work well for this paper.
Three of the essays that they write during the year are written on the subject of their Super Essays: the division essay, about the history of the Great Idea; the cause and effect essay, about the positives of the Great Idea; and the persuasive essay, about the negative effects of the Great Idea. At the end of the year, these essays are combined with a “super introduction” and “super conclusion” to create one paper, similar in length and complexity to a college term paper.
The Super Essay below was written by Katherine Hatcher, a student in this year’s Level 3 class. She chose Social Security as her “Great Idea.” Katherine works very hard on her writing, and she is an excellent researcher and thinker. Believe it or not, she was only a 9th grader this year! I’m so proud of her!
The Voters’ Choice
by Katherine Hatcher
The government has always grown. Starting with the change from the weak government under the Articles of Confederation to the stronger government under the Constitution, which had powers like taxation and the ability to raise an army, the federal government has grown from being absurdly weak to permeating almost all areas of American life. Only a few years after the Constitution was ratified, a new debate over the extent of the government’s power arose. Should the Constitution be interpreted strictly, meaning that the federal government had only the powers that were explicitly granted to it by the Constitution, or should it be interpreted broadly, meaning that the federal government also had powers that were implicitly granted to it by the Constitution? Alexander Hamilton used a broad interpretation of the Constitution to defend the national bank. Later, Thomas Jefferson used the same interpretation to justify the Louisiana Purchase, with which he effectively ended that particular constitutional debate. Today, a broad construction of the Constitution underpins almost the entire federal government. A century after the Louisiana Purchase, the government once again extended its reach during the Progressive Era, when Congress passed several laws at the public’s behest, including the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Volstead Act. Some of these laws regulated businesses in unprecedented, necessary, and popular ways, while others enacted broad social reforms, such as Prohibition. All of these situations greatly expanded government power. After the first few years of the devastating Great Depression, however, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed and oversaw what is arguably the single most dramatic expansion of government power in American history. Over the course of his terms in office, Roosevelt created many new programs to regulate businesses, programs to employ the unemployed, and programs to assist the poor. These programs were rarely enduring. Nevertheless, if the program managed to last, it often became enshrined in the political system and politically untouchable. One of these enshrined and untouchable programs is Social Security. Like the entire government, Social Security has done nothing but expand through its long history. The program has had positive effects, but Social Security has far more negative effects. Although Social Security appeared to be a stroke of genius, it turned out to be a ticking time bomb.
History of Social Security
What is Social Security? If most people were asked this, they would confidently claim that Social Security is a retirement program that provides a somewhat stingy monetary benefit to dependent retirees each month. They would not be wrong. Despite retirement benefits being its primary purpose, Social Security pays out benefits in a variety of situations because its eager creators and expanders proudly envisioned the program as compulsory insurance against common causes of poverty, which include retirement, disability, and the death of a family’s breadwinner (Mill 9). Funded by a 12.4% tax on personal income up to $118,500, Social Security bases the size of its benefits on up to 35 years of a worker’s annual income. Fairly, Social Security replaces a higher percentage of a worker’s income if the worker made less money, and a lower percentage if the worker made more money (Mill 90). Social Security temporarily solved some of the problems of the helpless elderly, but it has ultimately run into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Although societies had naturally evolved support systems for the elderly, the rise of cities shattered those systems, creating problems for the elderly. On farms, older adults smoothly transitioned into housework for their accepting children when they became unable to work in the fields or at a trade (Crossen). Unfortunately, families in cities often lived in cramped and dingy apartments and lacked space for the elderly to live. Dependent on wages for their living, adults often could not afford to support their despondent parents. Making matters worse, skeptical employers often refused to hire older people and would fire their older employees. Workers lacked funds for retirement. The average annual salary in 1929 was equivalent to $16,000 in 2004, meaning that workers could not add to their non-existent savings. Lacking a good support structure, many older adults ended up in one of many poorhouses, which at their best provided an awful standard of living. Despite these challenges, most of the elderly managed to survive, often by working until they died (Crossen). The Depression greatly amplified the struggles of old age, wiping out meager savings and causing millions to lose their jobs (“Social Security 1930s”). Recognizing the elderly’s struggles, by 1934 thirty states implemented means-tested old-age pensions, the amounts of which were promptly reduced as more people needed the pension. As a result, plans for national old-age pensions became increasingly popular. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security to find solutions for the primary causes of poverty. One of the Committee’s proposals was mandatory retirement insurance that would provide for the elderly. This became Social Security (“Social Security 1930s”). In response to the lack of support systems for the elderly, the frustrated public naturally supported Social Security.
Since Social Security was as popular as cat videos are today, Congress naturally supported it and later expanded it. In April 1935, the House of Representatives optimistically passed the Social Security Bill, which provided both for what is known today as Social Security and for unemployment support, women and children’s health programs, and career retraining programs, with 372 votes supporting the comprehensive bill and only 33 votes against it (“Social Security 1930s”). Quickly, the Senate passed the bill as well, with only six senators opposing the bill. Roosevelt eagerly signed the bill. Initially giving retirement benefits only to retired employees, Congress extended benefits in 1939 to desolate survivors of working adults who died prematurely as well as the families of retirees (“Social Security 1930s”). Social Security benefits, which even a decade after its beginning only covered 60% of workers, were soon extended to cover most non-governmental employees, as well as the military and a few government employees (“Social Security 1950s”). Around the same time, the program was expanded to cover all disabled adults (Altman 149). In 1972, Congress implemented an annual cost-of-living adjustment, which was necessary because previously adjustments to the fixed Social Security benefits were declared only sporadically by acts of Congress (“Social Security 1970s”). This era of popular expansions seemingly helped Social Security better achieve its aims, but soon the large entitlement’s growth would prove untenable.
Initially, a growing post-war economy had subsidized generous Social Security benefits for years, but the growing inflation and unemployment of the 1970s shone a blinding light on the crumbling foundation of Social Security (Altman 216). When wages stagnated, Social Security received less income from which to pay dependent retirees their benefits, which were increasing drastically due to inflation that caused large cost-of-living adjustments each year. The high inflation of the 1970s further compounded the program’s issues because during times of high inflation the new cost-of-living adjustment formula erroneously caused the percentage of workers’ income replaced by benefits to rise, eventually to more than 100% of their previous income. In 1975, Social Security’s concerned trustees predicted that the program’s funds would be depleted by 1979. Attempting to patch the program until the economy, and therefore tax revenue, recovered, Jimmy Carter signed a bill raising the Social Security tax and reducing benefits. Unfortunately, the economy kept contracting. Carter’s fix was therefore useless, only pushing the date of Social Security insolvency to 1983. In 1981, a bipartisan committee was created to find a permanent solution, which the committee presented in early 1983, with mere months to spare (Altman 234). Republicans and Democrats quickly and collectively managed to pass the committee’s recommended tax and retirement increases, even though Ronald Reagan would have preferred to end the program entirely (Dellinger). Social Security had been saved. Solvency was projected indefinitely. The public was thrilled. Unfortunately, solvency projections were soon revised downward to last until the early 2030s (“Social Security 1990s”). Since that was so far away, the program was mostly left alone for the next few decades (“Social Security 2000s”). Although the program is likely to have negative cash flow in 2018 and will be insolvent in 2034, no proposed changes have been treated seriously (Board of Trustees). The close of Social Security’s golden age ushered in a period of continuing money woes.
Although Social Security succeeded in supporting despondent seniors for a time, currently it is rapidly running out of money, which is needed to pay promised benefits. Before its conception and during its expansion, Social Security masqueraded as a brilliant idea to a growing problem while population growth caused a boom in revenue. Eventually, however, the end of a population boom caused negative cash flow, which is draining Social Security’s coffers. Most importantly, ways to fix Social Security exist but always falter in the face of passionate public and political opposition. Benefits could be cut (Mill 32). Taxes could be raised (Mill 32). Caring first and foremost about their reelection, the ambivalent politicians who could legislate these solutions will probably push the problem into the future until Social Security is on its deathbed (Dellinger). Even then, the popularity of the solutions is uncertain. In Social Security 101, Alfred Mill optimistically claims that “it’s likely that eventually some combination of these changes will be used to keep the program solvent at least into the next century (Mill 33).” Others are pessimistically unsure that Social Security is really such a sure thing.
Positive Effects of Social Security
Many people love Social Security. Some people hate it. Few understand it. Since Social Security was initially proposed, horrified politicians, mostly Republicans, have furiously lambasted the program. Claiming that the program is far too costly, the irate opponents of Social Security have gained more allies as the program’s precarious financial state became evident. Despite the many problems with Social Security, the vast majority of the public supports it (“Public Opinions on Social Security”). Although Republicans stereotypically detest Social Security, and although many Republican politicians do in fact detest it, 72% of Republicans currently appreciate the program. Levels of support only rise among independent voters and Democrats (“Public Opinions on Social Security”). Overwhelmingly, determined Americans want to save Social Security, even if they must pay higher taxes to do so (“Public Opinions on Social Security”). This popularity is not groundless. Americans recognize that Social Security has advantages. However, most satisfied Americans do not understand the scope of Social Security’s effects. In addition to providing income for desolate seniors, Social Security also supports parts of the economy. Americans must comprehend the exact value of Social Security so that they can wisely decide its fate.
Obviously, struggling and pessimistic seniors, who are the largest group of Social Security recipients, value Social Security. Lifting thirty percent of seniors out of poverty, Social Security provides two-thirds of seniors with more than half of their income (Romig, Reno). Half of these dependent seniors have little or no other sources of income (Reno). For most worried seniors, Social Security is their only fixed income, because pensions are almost non-existent outside of government jobs, many of which are currently lowering pension sizes, increasing worker contributions, and eliminating pensions entirely (Koenig and Myles 5). Social Security’s impact is so great because many retirees did not save for retirement while they were working (Morrissey). A textbook case, Janet Boes has no retirement savings and lives almost entirely on her Social Security benefits, which allow her to maintain a simple but comfortable lifestyle (Lawler). If they did save, retirees usually did not save enough money to live on (Morrissey). Despite massive advertising campaigns by investment companies, who benefit when people invest their retirement savings with the company, blissful Americans consistently fail to save enough money for retirement. Because retirees can probably withdraw four percent of their savings annually from the start of their retirements without running out of money, a common savings goal is one million dollars (Bernard). This provides an annual income of forty thousand dollars, which can support a comfortable, frugal, and low-stress retirement (Bernard). In contrast to this savings goal, the mean retirement savings of Americans between the ages of fifty-six and sixty-one, which is the age range that is closest to retirement, amount to a mere $163,577, which translates into an annual income of $6,539 (Morrissey). Because of these inadequate savings levels, Social Security will strongly and positively impact more retirees as the eldest retirees, who are more likely to have pensions, die, and younger, pension-less adults retire. Social Security supports many seniors.
While Social Security assists seniors, it also supports parts of the national economy. Generating almost two dollars of spending for every dollar of benefits, Social Security benefits trigger a ripple effect through the economy (Koenig and Myles 12). How can the benefits multiply so greatly? The process is simple. Initially, seniors, who tend to spend a higher percentage of their income than younger adults because they have fewer large planned expenses, purchase various products. The vendors who receive this money use it to pay their trusting suppliers and eager workers, who in turn buy products from other businesses with the money. In addition to these basic but costly expenses, businesses may hire additional employees, purchase greater amounts of supplies, and pay workers higher wages. All of these expenditures give the recipients more money to spend. In this way, Social Security benefits support almost twice the initial benefit amounts in spending. This effect is assisted by the redistributive nature of Social Security. Although households with incomes under $50,000 make up only eighteen percent of the total amount of American household income, these households collect fifty-eight percent of the total Social Security benefits. Since lower-income households usually spend a higher percentage of their income than higher-income households do, Social Security redistributes money from people who can afford to save it to people who will spend it, which helps to fuel the economy. Overall, Social Security supports one out of every twenty jobs, and one-twentieth of American GDP (Koenig and Myles 12). Social Security’s impact on the economy cannot be denied without risking parts of the economy.
As resentful Republicans decry Social Security, as determined Democrats defend it, and as stubborn seniors guard it like a mother guards her child, Americans must fully comprehend the impact of Social Security on both senior poverty and the economy. Without Social Security, numerous seniors, who are already barely making ends meet, would be impoverished, working adults would lose a large source of retirement income that they were counting on, and many startled workers would lose their jobs. Since the elimination or reduction of Social Security would have drastic consequences, it is imperative that Americans recognize the benefits of the program. Rapidly, predictably, and worryingly, Social Security is running out of money. Proposing an assortment of adjustments to the program, politicians can easily overwhelm and confuse voters with the myriad proffered options, which range from complete privatization to actually raising benefits, as well as taxes, of course. Clearly, something must be done. It is difficult to make a decision that is based solely on facts amid the emotionally charged rhetoric of politicians, but a decision made by impassioned and fearful people will only cause even more problems. To replace emotion with logic, dauntless Americans must ground their opinions in facts. Only by understanding Social Security’s benefits can Americans decide what should be done.
Negative Effects of Social Security
To ensure that they make the best possible decision regarding Social Security, Americans must also comprehend the many negative effects of the program. Almost universally, Americans recognize that Social Security has large benefits, even if many people do not understand the exact effects. Unfortunately, most Americans do not understand the program’s defects. Blinded by politicians’ blithe reassurances, Americans fail to recognize that those politicians have almost nothing to gain from changing the perennially popular program, and everything to lose. Since Social Security will not fail during the terms of current politicians, it is much easier to leave the program for the next set of politicians to fix. Because they favor inaction, Americans should not accept politicians at their word, and instead should examine the program for themselves. This is of the utmost importance, for an open-minded examination of Social Security would reveal that it is riddled with flaws. Social Security causes more problems than it solves.
Social Security’s funding, which comes from a dedicated income tax, is problematic. One problem is that money used for Social Security cannot be used for other programs. If Social Security was the best use of the $945 billion that it spent in 2017, then this would not be an issue (“Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?”). Indeed, 39.2% of seniors would live in poverty if Social Security was eliminated (Romig). Assuredly, these worried seniors are significantly supported by Social Security. With Social Security, only 9.2% of seniors actually live in poverty. Mostly unassisted by Social Security, 17.5% of children and 11.2% of working-age adults suffer and languish in poverty while their taxes pay for monthly checks to be sent to seniors who would not be impoverished by the removal of those checks (Romig). Under Social Security, for example, a seventy-year-old with one million dollars in savings is given benefits that are partially paid for by a twenty-four-year-old who makes minimum wage and has no savings. This seems ridiculous. Regrettably, this occurs because Social Security tax is paid by almost all wage earners, regardless of their income level, and because many Social Security recipients’ sole qualification is that they are elderly. Many indignant people feel that those undeserving recipients are entitled to their benefits because they paid into the system when they were working. However, no one claims that they are entitled to food stamps, or other government assistance, even though they may have helped pay for those programs for fifty years. Social Security takes money away from potential means-tested programs that could help all of the poor, regardless of age, and none of the rich.
Another problem with Social Security is that the program inadvertently discourages saving for retirement. Obviously, Americans lose at least 6.2 % of their paychecks to Social Security (Mil 25). However, workers probably lose even more money to Social Security. How can workers lose money that they do not directly pay? Since employers must pay an additional 6.2% of the employee’s salary, the annoyed employer passes this cost onto the oblivious employee in the form of a lower salary (Mil 25). Although employers would not immediately raise salaries by 6.6% if Congress abolished Social Security, optimistic employees would likely enjoy a gradual, small, and helpful raise from their grudging employers. Even if disappointed workers never receive a dime from their employers, they would instantly, automatically, and excitedly receive an effective raise of approximately 6.6% because they would owe fewer taxes. This raise would cover a large chunk of the recommended retirement savings, 10% to 15% of a worker’s salary (“How much should I save for retirement?”). The second way that Social Security discourages saving is subtler. Ignorant of the details of their financial state, Americans regularly overestimate the size of their expected Social Security benefits (“Social Security”). Americans then save less money. Because of their delusions, many Americans are unpleasantly surprised when they are preparing to retire. If Social Security did not exist, adults, who could not live in blissful ignorance, would hopefully save more. Social Security’s taxes unintentionally dissuade Americans from saving for their retirements.
Despite the inadvertent issues with Social Security’s taxes, the program’s worst flaw is its design. Unbeknownst to trusting Americans, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment that uses new investors’ funds to pay guaranteed returns to previous investors (“Ponzi Schemes”). Social Security collects taxes from workers and promptly pays out its revenue to eligible seniors. In other words, funds from workers, who are the new investors, are used by Social Security, which is the organizer of the scheme, to pay returns to seniors, who are the previous investors. Eventually, Ponzi schemes always collapse. Typically, Ponzi schemes collapse when many investors withdraw from the scheme or when the scheme’s organizer fails to attract enough new investors and thus lacks money to pay previous investors (“Ponzi Schemes”). Because the government compels workers to join Social Security, Americans do not need to fear too many workers simultaneously demanding the refund of their paid Social Security taxes. Knowing that Congress can compel workers to join and pay for Social Security, indignant proponents of the program argue that Social Security will never fail to enroll enough new workers because workers have no choice but to join (Mil 25). Unfortunately, their understanding of the issue is the understanding of a child who claims that if he were president, he would make ice cream free for everyone. The distant but menacing shortage of “new investors” in Social Security will not stem from workers refusing to join Social Security, but rather from not enough workers existing. Social Security depends on a growing tax base, which requires a growing population, which necessitates a high birth rate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the birth rate “has generally been below replacement since 1971” (qtd. in Chappell). This means that America is currently dependent on immigration, which has its own potential problems that are completely separate from Social Security, for population growth (Chappell). If the American population ever begins to shrink, Social Security will collapse because it is structured as a Ponzi scheme.
Social Security is structured so poorly that it cannot hope to have a net positive effect on society. Stealing money from other, more important programs, Social Security also discourages individual retirement savings. With devastating effect, Social Security may partially or completely fail because it is a glorified but legal Ponzi scheme. Although Social Security has been successful for over eighty years, it is important for Americans to realize that Social Security cannot continue to be successful for much longer due to changing demographics. An increase in the Social Security tax is the only way to fix Social Security without either benefit cuts or a total restructuring of the program, which would probably also involve benefit cuts. Americans accept the higher taxes (“Public Opinions on Social Security”). Unfortunately, Americans fail to recognize the opportunity cost of paying more for Social Security. Americans could pay large sums of money to Social Security, or they could use that money to repair crumbling infrastructure, or to pay for better schools, or to send more aid to impoverished third-world countries. The list of possibilities is much longer. Is Social Security the best use of this money? Currently, Americans hastily answer in the affirmative, without truly ruminating on the question. If they pondered the question deeply, however, Americans might have a different answer.
Although Social Security seemed to answer the need for a program to assist impoverished seniors, Social Security is unfortunately not the answer. Social Security’s history shows that it has already struggled with solvency, and that the conditions that allowed Social Security to remain solvent have vanished. Social Security does have positive effects, but those effects are overshadowed by the many large negative effects of the program. Most importantly, America does not need to continue to muddle through its ill-conceived love affair with Social Security. Courageous and dauntless politicians could gradually dismantle Social Security and replace it with a means-tested program that would supplement the incomes of impoverished and pessimistic Americans, regardless of age. Retaining most of the positive effects of Social Security while diminishing and minimizing Social Security’s flaws, this program should also minimize the number of beneficiaries who do not truly need the income, although some fraud will always benefit undeserving people. Simultaneously, a federal system of individual retirement accounts, which would have contribution limits that are high enough that Americans could actually support their retirements using only the accounts, should be set up and made open to every American. The Social Security tax could be substantially reduced to give Americans more money to save, while the diminished tax could help fund Social Security’s replacement. These changes will be difficult. Certainly, furious seniors will fight to preserve Social Security using every weapon they have, as will other irate Americans who deliberately blind themselves to the dark side of Social Security. Despite these obstacles, however, the short-term pain and chaos caused by eliminating Social Security will be more than worth it, since its replacement will better help the poor, instead of self-sufficient seniors. Americans can help greedy seniors, or they can help needy Americans. Voters must choose.
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© 2019 Katherine Hatcher. Used with permission.