Importance of Social Security

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Without Social Security, analysts suggest poverty rates would double among all classes of senior citizens.
Without Social Security, analysts suggest poverty rates would double among all classes of senior citizens.

Seventy-five years after its creation, Social Security remains one of the most popular federal programs. Although people typically think of Social Security solely as a retirement program, its benefits are vital to keeping children, persons with disabilities and survivors (of deceased spouses) out of poverty. This is accomplished through a system of inflation-indexed benefits that prevent families' purchasing power from eroding over time. This factor, among others, accounts for Social Security's strong support among all racial and social classes.

  1. Size

    • Support for Social Security cuts across all racial and social groups, as a National Academy of Social Insurance poll suggests. The poll indicated that 92 percent of African-Americans, 90 percent of Latinos and 86 percent of white Americans agreed that Social Security's societal benefits were worth the cost. Seventy-six percent also did not mind paying Social Security taxes, or else they would have to support retired relatives financially. This suggests that many Americans see Social Security as more than an anti-poverty program.

    Significance

    • Debate about Social Security's importance flared anew in February 2010, when former Senator Alan Simpson--co-chair of President Barack Obama's deficit reduction commission--labeled the program as a "milk cow with 310 million tits," according to a CBS News report. Simpson's remarks drew an immediate and impassioned response from Ashley Carson, executive director of the National Older Women's League. In a letter to Simpson, Carson noted that the average Social Security recipient earns $13,900 per year--hardly enough for a luxurious life, she contended.

    Features

    • Social Security's importance to recipients depends on the type of benefit they draw, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. For example, 74 percent of whites rely on Social Security's retirement benefits, versus 44 and 43 percent for African-Americans and other minority group members, respectively. Yet only 26 percent of whites rely on disability and survivor benefits, compared with 45 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of other minorities. The institute suggests higher poverty rates among minorities as one explanation for the disparity.

    Types

    • Often overlooked in the policy debate are children, who receive more benefits from Social Security than any other federal program. About 6.5 million U.S. children get part of their family income from disability, retirement and survivor benefits, according to statistics quoted by the advocacy group Generations United. Social Security also provides near-universal coverage for children who experience a caregiver's death or disability--a figure that approaches 98 percent, according to the group's statistics.

    Considerations

    • Social Security's progressive benefits would be unaffordable in the private market, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. For example, the value of life insurance that survivors receive through Social Security is about $433,000. Similarly, the value of disability insurance for a four-person family that includes a young disabled worker is about $414,000. These factors are also important in protecting adult women, who tend to live longer than men, yet build fewer assets and experience greater poverty.

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