When Social Security was created in 1935, it was known as the Old Age Insurance Program and only supported industrial workers. But today, Dr. Kathryn Edwards told Free the Facts event attendees, Social Security has become a program that almost all American workers rely on.
Edwards is an economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. In 2016, she co-authored the textbook A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security. During Wednesday’s virtual event hosted by FtF Senior Policy Advisor Tom Church, Edwards explained the history, structure, and future of the program to attendees.
Edwards began with a definition: Social Security is a social insurance program aimed at preventing poverty in old age and protecting Americans who can’t work anymore.
“If you don’t know how much money you’ll have in retirement, you know you’ll have Social Security,” Edwards said.
She emphasized that Social Security is not a welfare program; recipients of welfare programs must demonstrate economic need. Meanwhile, all workers, regardless of their income, are eligible to receive Social Security as long as they’re at least 62 years old and have paid into the program via payroll taxes. The amount of benefits a retiree receives is based on their highest 35 years of earnings.
Edwards noted that Social Security is a popular program among workers and retirees because it promotes the commonly-held American value that “if you work, you will be okay.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t critics of the program.
In its early days, Edwards told attendees, the program came under scrutiny for “forcing” workers to pay into a retirement savings program run by the government. Critics argued that Social Security displaced personal savings. For example, if a worker was confident that they'd receive benefits once they reached age 65, they may not have felt incentivized to open their own retirement savings account. Other critics argued that market investments provided better returns than Social Security benefits did, and that the employer payroll tax was reducing the market’s demand for labor.
However, today’s debate has largely shifted from “Do we need Social Security?” to “Can we afford to finance Social Security?” Modern critics often cite Social Security's long-run funding shortfall as proof that the program is too expensive.
This shortfall is largely due to the changing economy and age demographics of the United States. Edwards told attendees that, most significantly, people are having fewer children and living longer lives. Fewer children leads to fewer workers paying into the system, while a longer lifespan leads to more retirees collecting benefits.
For the past several years, more money has been going out than coming in, and critics argue that Social Security’s looming insolvency is proof that we should abandon it altogether. But proponents of the program argue that these deficits can and should be shored up by Congress. They say we should act now to continue providing insurance for the next generation of retirees.
Edwards went on to explain why young people should pay attention to Social Security’s future even if they’re just starting their careers.
“We often express Social Security as a program that’s a benefit for old people, but in fact, the program is most valuable for young people because you have so much risk left in front of you,” she said.
In addition to the risks previous generations faced during their careers—financial crises, recessions, massive industry shifts, and more—current generations face new and increasingly urgent threats. Climate change, wage inequality, and wage stagnation loom over millennial and Gen Z workers, and without the insurance provided by Social Security, they could struggle to save for retirement during their careers.
When asked if she had any advice for college students during the live Q&A session, Edwards replied with a smile: “Start saving now and get a job!” She explained that today’s students have many options in front of them, such as attending graduate school or starting their careers. As they chart out the rest of their working lives, they should try and keep their long-term financial futures in mind.
If you’re interested in starting your career in public policy, join Free the Facts and Dr. Risha Gidwani, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and adjunct associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, on August 11th for the final event of the 2021 Summer Series.