A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security is an excellent tool for teaching students and younger workers how the system works and what’s at stake in the struggle over Social Security’s future. But big money is behind “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” a competing curriculum that can’t hide its deep ideological bias.
The Social Security wars are fought on many fronts. One of the newest is for the hearts and minds of younger Americans – high school and college students and even young workers. These people – “future decision-makers,” as they’re sometimes called – don’t always have well-developed assumptions about Social Security, Medicare, and related programs. That makes them either a non-factor in the national debate or else a potentially crucial bloc of votes. Some of them will no doubt go on to influential careers in public policy. And so the messages that are fed to them as students could have an enormous impact in future decades.
Two sets of institutions with very different values and priorities have entered the lists with curricula designed to shape young people’s thinking about Social Security, the deficit, and the fiscal choices facing the U.S. The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have collaborated on a 62-page book titled A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security, released in July. Meanwhile, Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College recently completed a three-year, $2.45 billion project, bankrolled by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, to develop what it calls
a non-partisan, high-school curriculum that teaches students to think past the political rhetoric they hear about the economic challenges we face as a nation and learn to think for themselves.
After field-testing in Texas, Ohio, and New York, the final version of the TC/Peterson curriculum is now available free of charge to high schools nationwide.
The presumptions behind the two courses of study couldn’t be more different, a reading of the Young Person’s Guide and the Teachers College materials now available online reveals.
The starting point of the former is that Social Security is a crucial program for working Americans, that the underlying concept of social insurance offsets major risks in the private sector, and that whatever fiscal problems Social Security may face can be resolved without dismantling it or dishonoring its promises. It explains carefully and clearly how Social Security collects payroll tax, accumulates a trust fund and computes benefits. It examines the factors that are likely to affect Social Security’s funding in the future – fertility, life expectancy, growth of wages and wealth inequality, economic performance – and lays out the arguments on either side of the attacks on Social Security.
Dubbed “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” the Teachers College project is more wide-ranging than what NASI and EPI have put together. But, in line with the career of its patron, hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson, it circles back relentlessly to what it portrays as the centrality of Social Security and Medicare to America’s alleged debt-and-deficit crisis. The materials this writer viewed contained virtually nothing on how Social Security works or its actual role of Social Security in the lives of retirees, working people and their families, or the disabled, giving students no clear idea of what’s at stake for people if the program were cut. They also fail to mention the distinctive nature of Social Security and Medicare as self-funded, earned benefits programs. Instead, Understanding Fiscal Responsibility treats them as just another “priority”among many, properly subject to the same political trade-offs as the Pentagon budget, infrastructure investments, and other federal budget items.
And so while The Young Person’s Guide encourages a balanced view of Social Security – not ignoring the challenges it may face but mindful of the human cost at stake in any changes – Understanding Fiscal Responsibility keeps the effect on people out of the equation. The NASI/EPI approach emphasizes the larger mission of Social Security to preserve income security in old age. The TC/Peterson approach erases such concerns, and instead encourages a strictly quantitative view of the program that takes for granted projected future changes in the population and the economy and places the burden of adjusting to them entirely on Social Security itself.
There’s something else unfortunate about Understanding Fiscal Responsibility. It’s a much more ambitious program than the Young Persons’ Guide, embracing the entire sweep of federal budgeting as it affects the economy now and far into the future. I’ve felt for a long time that American education could use a proper course in how the economy works – what is a bank? what are securities? how do the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury operate? what are interest rates, GDP, and the balance of trade, and how do they affect us in the real world? But rather than provide this holistic view of the everyday economy, without which it’s difficult for the average person even to comprehend a daily newspaper these days, Understanding Fiscal Responsibility airbrushes out anything that doesn’t directly relate to the federal deficit and the national debt. It could easily lead students to believe they’ve mastered a great deal of modern economic relations when in fact they’ve been informed very selectively.
The Young Person’s Guide isn’t perfect either, despite its narrower focus. While it provides a great deal of valuable information and perspective in a handy, concise format with good graphics, it fails to address some of the more pernicious facets of the argument against Social Security – that it’s a Ponzi scheme, that the Treasury bonds in the trust funds are money the government owes to itself (they belong to the people who pay into the system and receive benefits from it – not to the government). It does a much better job at underscoring the damage that could be wrought by cutting Social Security than Understanding Fiscal Responsibility, which doesn’t address this at all, but it doesn’t quantify what the consequences of specific changes would be. For instance, by what percent would benefits be cut, on average, if the normal retirement age was increased? if the benefit calculation was made stingier? If cost-of-living adjustments were reduced?
Any of these alterations would mean a lower standard of living for current retirees and workers approaching retirement, but the impact would be much worse for their successors – today’s workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. My guess would be that this analysis would matter to students and younger workers. It should have found a place in The Young Person’s Guide.
That said, it’s hard to quarrel with a curriculum that ends with the following statement:
Social Security is a fully functional insurance program that has provided benefits to millions of American workers. And for many people — people who are older, people who are disabled, people who have lost a parent — Social Security is the difference between living sustainably and living in poverty. Its strength in this important regard makes it a pillar of the American economy.
Finally, this is the difference between these two attempts to create a course of study of Social Security for people at the beginning of their adult lives. The Young Person’s Guide bases its approach on an affirmation of social solidarity not just as a good value but as an integral part of the American community’s social-economic fabric. Contrast that with the following suggested classroom discussion laid out on http://understandingfiscalresponsibility.org/:
Although the federal government is working to reduce spending, it also must address the issue of unemployment and continue to provide services to citizens. Some questions to consider: Should the federal government spend more to keep programs running or focus solely on reducing the deficit?
The fact that Understanding Fiscal Responsibility would ask students even to entertain the possibility of devoting the federal government’s entire resources to deficit reduction during a time of recession and long-term structural deterioration for working people, says a great deal about the distorted nature of its economics. The zero-sum analysis implicit in these questions – either programs are funded or the deficit rises, there’s no other way – encourages students to think of Social Security, or any program that reinforces social solidarity, as a roadblock to virtue instead of a virtue in and of itself.
That’s not surprising given the origins of Understanding Fiscal Responsibility and The Young Person’s Guide – for the one, funding comes from Wall Street; for the other, in part from the labor movement. Given the leverage on either side, I’m not going to say I’m optimistic about which curriculum is more likely to find its way into American classrooms.