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Social Security is No Safety Net

I will (mostly) resist the urge to write about Social Security. Much will be written on this topic during the next several months – some will be good, much will be bad.

I rest content today merely to object to describing Social Security as a "safety net" — such as in this report in today’s New York Times.  A safety net is something that one never wants to use; everyone wishes to avoid contact with it. It’s there in the event of an accident, an unplanned mishap.

Whether you celebrate Social Security as the most marvelous innovation since opposable thumbs, or regard it as an unmitigated tragedy, it is not a safety net.

First, every working American is (in theory) entitled to it, even Bill Gates and Barry Bonds. (I think some folks in Galveston, Texas, somehow have managed to avoid the system, but my memory of this possibility is quite dim.) Social Security is not really meant to catch people who fall from life’s ordinary and expected institutional supports; it’s designed to be a critical part of these expected supports.

Second, and relatedly, many working people today do indeed plan to use the Social Security pay that they expect to receive after retirement as a significant component of their financial resources in retirement. Compare this planning to trapeze artists, who do not plan to use the safety net as part of their act, or to window washers, who do not plan to use the safety net to perform their job. Again, a real safety net is something that people would prefer never to come into contact with.

Third, retirement is no mishap.  Not only is it foreseeable well in advance of its arrival — hence, it can be amply planned for — it is desirable.  People want to retire.

So even if you are unalterably in favor of Social Security, if you’re honest and frank you, too, should reject descriptions of it as a safety net. Such a description is used for the added, unthinking emotional umphh it adds to the arguments of those who press to keep Social Security in its current form. That may be good, or, as I believe, it may be bad – either way, it’s no safety net.


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