Geezer Envy

Nicole Gelinas makes an interesting argument about the Social Security reform movement:

As the Baby Boomers retire, our perception of the elderly as poor and vulnerable is likely to change — and Social Security may lose its near-universal support.

[…]

It may sound crazy to warn that future generations could force 75-year-olds to work for their benefits. But when FDR knitted his social safety net, it would have sounded equally crazy to warn that society would someday force single mothers to work for their benefits.

Social Security and welfare were born at the same time, and on the same basis: Universal social empathy. Any taxpayers could empathize with being elderly, vulnerable and indigent — so all were willing to pay to ensure that the elderly could live in dignity. Likewise, any taxpayer could empathize with a poor widowed mother; a housewife with a working husband could see herself in that situation. But as decades passed, voters saw welfare not as a universal entitlement to vulnerable widows, but as a benefit for a separate class of people who had made a conscious choice to be single — “welfare mothers.” As married mothers went to work, they resented paying welfare benefits for mothers who didn’t. Hence, welfare reform.

The same thing could happen to Social Security. As more seniors choose to work past 67, they’ll resent paying high taxes to fund benefits for those who consciously choose to retire. Retirement for healthy seniors could be viewed as a lifestyle choice — one that working seniors, and younger workers, don’t see the justification in funding. Society will always protect its most vulnerable classes — but 75-year-olds in good health, just like today’s single mothers, may not be seen as vulnerable.

Seniors with private savings wouldn’t be hurt — they can retire on their own dime. But those who depend on Social Security would be hurt. Within the next two decades, they could find that they’re expected to keep working for a living, just like the young mothers who pay double-digit taxes solely to fund their retirement benefits. Bush’s plan would protect these seniors — because it allows them to earn a pot of personal savings by the time they reach “retirement” age, just as wealthier workers do.

Mickey Kaus, who tipped me to the piece, agrees that the legitimacy of “early” retirement could come into question:

Social Security has always been double-“work-tested”–that is 1) people who got it were seen as too old to be expected to work and 2) they’d worked and contributed payroll taxes when they were younger. But maybe Work Test #1 has now eroded–so many seniors are working that people in their late 60’s aren’t considered too old to work (just as, Gelinas notes, single moms are no longer not expected to work). AARP should worry about this. All those pictures in its magazine of vigorous seniors biking and hiking are coming back to bite them.

Indeed. The problem with this analysis, though, is that “65” does not a represent a uniform level of aging and work capacity. A 65-year-old coal miner or longshoreman is simply older an less likely to be able to continue being productive than a 65-year-old philosophy professor or journalist. I’m not sure how to address that without removing the fiction that Social Security isn’t a social welfare program.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SteveL says:

    James, I agree with your comment to my post and I’ve added a clarification to the point I was trying to make.

  2. Wendall says:

    And just what makes you think that seniors will sit still and have their SS taken away. Even at 75 most of our trigger fingers function.

  3. McGehee says:

    And just what makes you think that seniors will sit still and have their SS taken away.

    You’re more likely to lose your Social Security if nothing, or next-to-nothing (the Dems’ alternatve) is done.

  4. Bob says:

    Very good comments. An alternative way of looking at it, is to simple abolish SS and then provide ordinary welfare to those seniors who are in need. As the article said, the classic argument for SS was to prevent senior poverty and want; ordinary welfare, without the shell game of “lockboxes, etc” takes care of that (doesn’t it?) without the incredible overhead.

  5. bryan says:

    A 65-year-old coal miner or longshoreman is simply older an less likely to be able to continue being productive than a 65-year-old philosophy professor or journalist.

    Assuming that the philosophy professor and journalist were being productive to begin with. 😉

    But as to the original article, both social security and welfare were born out of universal empathy after the great depression hit, which went a long way to providing that kind of empathy.

    But it’s a good argument for private accounts.

  6. herostratus says:

    A 65-year-old coal miner or longshoreman is simply older an less likely to be able to continue being productive than a 65-year-old philosophy professor or journalist.

    Yes, you would say that, being a knowledge worker. The fact is, the brain goes just as quickly as the muscles. It’s just that, if you’re a 65-year-old miner, and you can’t do it anymore, nobody’s going to carry you.

    If you’re a 65-year-old lawyer, or professor, or whatever, they will carry you; they’ll give you an office to fart around as long as you like.

    Of course, there are exceptions (just as there are in the mines or on the docks), but as a rule workers in their late 60s are just taking up space.

    This is not necessarily an argument against raising the retirement age. After all, we do live much longer than in 1932, so it’s certainly something to consider.

    On the other hand, recognize that if you are asking businesses to begin retaining people in their professions or trades up to age 70, then you are asking businesses to lower their productivity.

  7. Clint Lovell says:

    As long as we are willing to think of fixing Social Security by increasing taxes or cutting benefits this is the shape of things to come.