Millions of Children Overlooked in Social Security Spending Debate

I’ve remarked before on how proponents of “entitlement reform,” a.k.a. cuts in Social Security and Medicare, pit us older folks against the young.

If I had a nickel for every time the Washington Post editorial board had warned that we were taking money away from younger, needier people, I wouldn’t need my Social Security retirement benefits.

It’s not just self-anointed fiscal hawks who accuse us of eating the younger generation’s lunch. Post columnist Catherine Rampell, for example, says that “spending on other stuff — especially the elderly … is crowding out” spending for children’s needs.

The recent Social Security Trustees’ report will probably set off another round of calls for cutting retirement benefits, lest the system “go broke” in the mid-2030s. That’s not the only trigger for the old versus young framing, however.

The draft Democratic party platform endorses a more expansive Social Security program. And Clinton herself has promised to expand it, though not as broadly as Bernie Sanders earlier proposed.

So we should expect her and her surrogates to press the issue during the campaign — and Trump to insist he’ll leave Social Security alone, though he’s hinted at possible changes affecting future generations.

“Our goal,” he says, “is to keep the promises made to Americans through our Social Security program.” So for him, as for the notably more progressive and forthcoming Democrats, the focus remains on what the program does and should do for seniors.

A new report offers a genuinely new perspective on Social Security benefits — one that should, at the very least, disrupt the conventional framing. That’s just what the Center for Global Policy Solutions, which produced it, intends.

Turns out that the benefits provide crucial support to far more children than the Social Security Administration’s data show — more than twice as many, in fact, in 2014, the latest year the analysts had figures for.

This means, among other things, that the benefits lift far more children out of poverty than the Census Bureau’s reports identify. The latest puts the total at 2.2% of the age group. But the Center reports a 17.3% reduction in the child poverty rate.

These large differences stem from what benefits analyses include. The Census Bureau considers only benefits that go to children directly — not from the Supplemental Security Income program, which it reports separately, but from the programs for former workers and their dependents.

Children generally receive benefits directly when a wage-earning or formerly wage-earning parent dies or becomes too disabled to work anymore. In special cases, they may receive them when they’re cared for — and financially supported — by grandparents who themselves have retirement benefits.

The millions “overlooked, but not forgotten,” as the report’s subtitle calls them, are children who benefit indirectly because they live in households where somebody else receives Social Security benefits — or perhaps more than one somebody.

For all families with children, Social Security has become a more important source of income, the Center says, because total income — presumably, including wages and/or retirement accounts — has either stagnated or declined.

Social Security benefits that children received both directly and indirectly accounted for 39% of family income — again, in 2014. A much larger share for black children and their families — 46%, an increase of more than 9% since 2001.

This in itself speaks volumes about the anti-poverty effects of Social Security — and volumes about what will happen to children and their families if federal policymakers decide to save the program by measures leading Republicans (and our very Democratic President) have proposed in the past.

One, as I’ve written before, would further increase the retirement age for claiming benefits. That would surely throw more multi-generational families into poverty — and more that consist of only grandparents and their grandkids.

Another, no longer favored by Obama, would make cost-of-living adjustments even smaller, though the COLA measure now used apparently understates what seniors must spend to meet their basic needs.

The Center instead endorses a mix of measures to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund — all recommended by a panel of experts that it and a partner nonprofit convened about five years ago.

We’ve seen versions of the measures elsewhere — scrapping the cap on earned income subject to payroll taxes, for example, and reducing the benefits paid to former high-earners. The Center would fold in a small, gradual increase in the payroll tax rate, split between employers and employees. This too has been floated before.

Everybody from left to right knows we’ve got to do something because Social Security beneficiaries will otherwise receive less than they’re entitled to long about 2035. And the sooner we do something to protect them, the less drastic it will have to be.

The Center’s report should create a greater sense of urgency, if needed among advocates, analysts and op-ed writers who sometimes frame Social Security spending as a threat to children in need.

First Focus President Bruce Lesley tweets a line from the inimitable Stephen Colbert: “If we don’t cut expensive things like Head Start, child nutrition programs, and teachers, what sort of future are we leaving for our children?”

We know now we could ask the same ironic question about Social Security benefits.

One Response to Millions of Children Overlooked in Social Security Spending Debate

  1. […] report I recently summarized includes them. If its findings apply in the District, the total number of residents lifted out of […]

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