Passing Social Security Forward: A Legacy for All Generations

This article is adapted from the authors’ co-authored book, “Social Security Works for Everyone! Protecting and Expanding the Insurance Americans Love and Count On” (New York: The New Press, 2021).

Aug. 14, 2021 is Social Security‘s 86th birthday. It was signed into law on that day in 1935. The best birthday present we can give this essential institution (and ourselves) is to expand it. In our latest book, "Social Security Works for Everyone!," we explain why it is time to do so. We set forth a road map and plan that explain how to build upon the foundation set down 86 years ago and expand our Social Security system to benefit all generations, now and into the future.

It is time to expand Social Security, to increase economic security, as we recover from today’s pandemic. The richest nation in the world can afford a large and fully-funded expansion. Whether to expand Social Security, cut it or radically change it is a matter of values, not affordability.

Expanding Social Security Is a Solution

The incomes of many among the 65 million who each month receive retirement, disability and survivors benefits are inadequate, or at risk of being so. Tens of millions of working Americans—variously estimated as between two-fifths and two-thirds of today’s workers—know they will never be able to retire with sufficient income. Substantially expanding Social Security’s modest but vital benefits will address these crises.

‘As divided as America seems at this moment in history, Social Security unites us.’

And expanding Social Security is a solution to so much more. It will alleviate pressures—financial, time, and stress-related—experienced by those caring for children or disabled and ill family members of all ages. It will offset some of the perilous and rising income and wealth inequalities. And it is a timely reminder that government policies, when guided by the American people’s best instincts, can strengthen our national community.

Social Security Unites Us

At its core, Social Security invites us to reflect deeply upon the kind of society we, as a people and a nation, want. Social Security gives expression to some of our most fundamental moral values and, if we are spiritual, to our religious values, irrespective of which religious tradition that may be. The program balances individualism with an understanding that individuals thrive in the context of families and communities; that we are all joined as part of the human race and have obligations to each other. And with an understanding of how one generation fares in retirement directly depends upon how the next generation is doing during their working years, and the next at the start of life.

As divided as America seems at this moment in history, Social Security unites us. Politicians and the media decry how polarized our nation’s politics are. Electoral maps, depicting red states and blue states, provide a pictorial representation of that polarization. Hot-button topics like abortion and immigration reform are often used by politicians to divide the electorate.

But Americans are overwhelmingly united in our support for Social Security. Poll after poll reveals this. The findings of an online survey of two thousand adults ages 21 and older conducted by Matthew Greenwald and Associates (in collaboration with the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance) found that a large majority of Americans believe Social Security is more important than ever, do not mind contributing to Social Security because it provides security and stability, and believe that consideration should be given to expanding its benefits.

This view of the overwhelming majority of the American people should not come as a surprise. The America we know today would not be possible without Social Security. Moreover, Social Security embodies the best of America’s ideals.

The Changing Politics of Social Security

Despite the overwhelming support for Social Security among the American people, the discussion among political elites about the future of Social Security has been dominated, from the 1990s until recently, by twin questions: How much should we cut Social Security’s modest benefits, and how do we do it through closed-door negotiations so as not to be voted out of office?

Democratic and Republican politicians alike spoke of their strong, unflinching support for the program (perhaps they “doth protested too much?”) and their desire to “save” it through “bipartisan action.” At times, it was difficult for the casual observer to discern much difference between the two parties when it came to Social Security.

‘This is not a time for compromising the economic well-being of the middle class and the poor.’

During the Obama administration, our elected officials came closer than most people realize to cutting and, worse, beginning the dismantling of our Social Security system. When the president of the United States and the leadership of the opposition party all supported cutting Social Security in the name of deficit reduction (even though Social Security doesn’t add a penny to the deficit), when hundreds of millions of dollars were directed at making the case for cutting Social Security, when so many in the mainstream media seemed so supportive of such cuts, it is remarkable that they were stymied by the coordinated efforts of public interest organizations and the American people.

Perhaps even more remarkable, thanks to these same forces, President Biden and the Democratic Party he heads, now support expanding, not cutting, Social Security.

Expanding Social Security

This is not a time for compromising the economic well-being of the middle class and the poor, not when income inequality and wealth inequality are higher than they have ever been in the past 50 years. Not when the worldwide pandemic has exacerbated income and wealth inequality.

This is not a time to accept cuts to our Social Security as “reasonable compromise,” as little “tweaks” that will do no lasting harm. Rather, this is the time for our elected leaders to expand Social Security, as the overwhelming majority of Americans want.

Although couched largely in terms of economics, the debate over the future of Social Security is most fundamentally a debate about the role of government and the societal values the nation seeks to achieve through Social Security, including the right of citizens to economic and health security.

Expanding the current program is vitally important. Moreover, the nation can, should and we believe will draw on the broader vision of Social Security, in time achieving the long-sought goal of universal, guaranteed quality healthcare, debt-free four-year college and advanced trade education, paid sick leave and family leave, as well as an adequate basic income as fundamental human rights, befitting a compassionate and rich nation.

The Social Security we have today didn’t just happen. Past generations fought for it, protected it, safeguarded it, expanded it, and passed it forward, stronger than before, as a legacy to all of us, young, old and middle-age alike. Now it is our turn.

Nancy J. Altman, JD, is president and cofounder of Social Security Works, a nonprofit organization working to protect and expand Social Security in Bethesda, Md. Eric R. Kingson, PhD, MPA, is a professor of Social Work at Syracuse University in New York, and cofounder of Social Security Works.