Social Security’s troubles are fundamental. Its financial problems are not minor and temporary, as most politicians, at least in election years, feel compelled to insist. Unless the system is reorganized, these problems will become overwhelming. To put the matter bluntly, Social Security is heading for a crash. We cannot permit this to happen, because it would put the nation itself in very serious jeopardy. Though in effect for only two generations, Social Security has become the defining link between citizen and state in modern America. It has such uniform and reverential support that if the system crashes, so almost certainly will civic harmony and the economy itself. The prospects for Social Security and for general prosperity are now inseparable.
The Social Security system has become a high-risk gamble on economic progress and population growth—a bet by today’s workers that their children and grandchildren will be rich and numerous enough to foot the bill for another round of generous retirement benefits. Should this hope go even mildly awry, today’s workers will retire into a Social Security system running deficits larger than the total benefits it pays out today.
Meanwhile the system—which spent over $190 billion in fiscal 1982—has already grown so colossal as to shape the entire future of the economy. Social Security spending has moved from 1 percent of the entire federal budget in 1950 to 26 percent today. By far the biggest government social program in world history, the system now spends each year more than the combined net investment in plant, equipment, research, and development of all the private companies in the United States.
During the past few years, we have witnessed a revolt against both the burden of rising federal taxes and the binge of spending which has made those taxes necessary. In many ways, Social Security is the prime mover of both. A little-known, but important, fact is that between 1955 and 1980 Social Security taxes more than accounted for the increase in federal revenues as a percent of GNP. The growth in Social Security outlays is responsible for almost all of the increase in federal outlays as a percent of GNP. Thus, were it not for the growth of Social Security, federal revenues as a percent of GNP would have declined and federal outlays would have remained virtually unchanged.
There is of course more to the Social Security puzzle than economics. It raises questions of ethics as well. Is a “contract” between generations fair when it gives today’s older people a vastly higher return on their contributed taxes than their children and grandchildren can possibly hope to receive? Is a welfare program that gives almost 30 percent of its tax-free benefits to the 20 percent of the elderly population with highest incomes what we want? (Incidentally, that 20 percent of the elderly population has a family income of $30,000 per year or more, and those over sixty-five who are married to nonworking spouses can expect to …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.