Social Security is the most successful and effective income security program in our nation’s history. Nearly 80 years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that it would provide “protection against the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” Social Security now insures 90 percent of all Americans against loss of income. Social Security keeps millions of Americans out of poverty and provides all Americans with the peace of mind that they will not become destitute if their family loses its primary source of income due to retirement, disability, or death.
But conservatives want to dismantle the nation’s greatest progressive achievement, and they want to enlist Millennials to do it.
Conservative politicians and outspoken 1-percenters are on a mission to convince young people that Social Security amounts to “generational theft.” According to these doomsayers, seniors are stealing from young people by collecting Social Security benefits and burdening young generations with future taxes that will be so astronomical as to leave them bankrupt. Therefore, these alarmists claim, we must cut Social Security benefits in order to save young Americans from future economic peril.
If the claim that America’s senior citizens are engaged in a nefarious plot to steal from their grandchildren sounds implausible, that’s because it is. Just like the 37 million seniors today who benefit from Social Security, millions of young Americans also benefit from the program and millions more will rely on it in the future when they are no longer able to work. This is especially true as more and more young workers experience firsthand the erosion of the private retirement system.
That’s why young people today don’t seem convinced cuts to this vital program are warranted. In fact, public polling reveals that Millennials not only want to protect Social Security, they would actually like to see funding for the program increased more than older people would.
But young people can’t afford to sit by and let these attacks continue. Here are five reasons Millennials should fight to strengthen—not cut—Social Security.
1. Millennials will need Social Security to retire—maybe even more than their parents.
Social Security was never intended to be Americans’ only source of income for a comfortable retirement, and previous generations have supplemented Social Security with income from personal savings and workplace retirement accounts. But due to a failing private retirement system, Millennials overwhelmingly lack those alternatives. Of workers under the age of 35, half have saved nothing for retirement and just 40 percent even have a retirement plan at work. Today, young Americans have also accumulated less wealth than our parents had accumulated by the same age 25 years ago. The increasingly inadequate private retirement system could mean that Social Security is the only source of income for many Millennials when they become too old to work.
2. Conservative attacks pose the most serious threat to Social Security.
Fortunately for the millions of young people who will rely on it, Social Security is a stable, self-funded program that will last indefinitely—unless politicians manage to convince us to get rid of it. Social Security is funded by a specific payroll tax paid by workers and employers, and it will continue to function as long as we do nothing to change it.
In 2033, the money going into Social Security will only cover about 75 percent of promised benefits. In other words, we are facing a 25 percent shortfall beginning 20 years from now. Not only does this projected shortfall not pose a threat to Social Security’s existence, but it is actually pretty easy to fix. For example, we don’t currently collect taxes to pay for the program on earnings above $113,700—just removing that cap for high-income workers would close the long-term gap. Along these lines, CAP has proposed a plan that will sustain Social Security’s finances for the next 75 years while ensuring that the program continues to provide an essential baseline of income for retirees in future generations.
Even if we do absolutely nothing, however, Social Security will continue to exist and make payments to beneficiaries indefinitely. In other words, the only way Social Security will “not be there” for Millennials is if lawmakers decide to end it. Contrary to what many have claimed, Social Security is not “bankrupt,” and it is not driving long-term debt.
3. Social Security benefits workers of all ages, including nearly 3.5 million Millennials who currently receive benefits.
Conservatives make it sound as if only the elderly benefit from Social Security, but the truth is that nearly one-third of Social Security beneficiaries are not retirees. Social Security provides benefits to 4.4 million children whose parents are disabled, retired, or deceased—making it the largest provider of benefits to children of any social program.
Moreover, all Americans benefit from the life-insurance and disability-insurance protection that Social Security provides. While none of us like to consider the possibility that we may become disabled or die, the reality is that many workers do need these benefits at some point. Among recent entrants to the labor force, almost 4 in 10 men and 3 in 10 women will become disabled or die before reaching the full retirement age. Disabled workers are entitled to disability benefits, and the families of deceased workers are able to receive survivor’s benefits. These benefits are not insubstantial—the value of the disability protection for a young disabled worker with a spouse and two children is about $465,000, and the value of the life insurance provided to survivors through Social Security is equivalent to a life insurance policy of $476,000.
4. Social Security eases the financial burden of seniors’ retirement on their children.
Social Security keeps 14 million elderly Americans out of poverty, and two-thirds of elderly beneficiaries rely on Social Security for the majority of their income. Without Social Security, nearly half of elderly Americans would live below the poverty line; instead, fewer than 10 percent do.
Social Security is especially important to seniors of color, who are less likely than white retirees to have private retirement benefits or asset income. Nearly half of Latino and African American seniors rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income, compared with 30 percent of elderly white beneficiaries.
And Social Security retirement income is very modest. With an average retirement benefit of $1,269 per month, or about $15,000 annually, most retirees are not exactly living high on the hog. Reducing or eliminating this essential income source would leave millions of seniors effectively penniless and dependent on their working-age children for food and shelter. Without Social Security, Millennials who only recently managed to move out of their parents’ houses could find their parents moving in with them.
5. We can invest in Millennials and also pay for Social Security.
The Center for American Progress has shown that we can invest in young people, strengthen the middle class, ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security, and balance the budget. These goals are not mutually exclusive.
Conservatives would have us believe that if only we weren’t spending so much money on old people, we could spend all that money on things that would benefit young people. But when these same politicians write budgets that slash spending on seniors, they don’t put those “savings” toward young people.
The most recent Republican House budget makes debilitating cuts to seniors’ health care, but it also reduces Pell Grants that help low-income students pay for college, cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that keeps millions of young families out of poverty, and eliminates the federal guarantee that makes it possible for young people to become homeowners. At the same time, the budget would create trillions of dollars in tax breaks for the rich.
That’s because conservative lawmakers don’t actually want to cut spending on the elderly to boost spending on Millennials. They want to cut spending on middle-class Americans of all ages in order to subsidize massive tax cuts for the richest 1 percent of Americans, which is exactly what the Republican House did in its recent budget.
Young people are not struggling today because our government is spending too much money on Social Security for our grandparents. Young Americans are struggling because the economy is growing too slowly and creating too few jobs, leading to double-digit unemployment rates for workers under age 25, many of whom are already saddled with crippling student-loan debt. Millennials desperately need policies that invest in job creation and economic opportunities for our generation. Instead, young people get lawmakers who are fixated on austerity at the expense of economic growth and monied interests peddling the same stale scare tactics invented by the Republicans who tried to thwart Social Security’s creation in 1935.
Indeed, conservatives have claimed for nearly 80 years that America’s bedrock social insurance contract is putting us on the brink of economic disaster and that the only way to stave off the impending catastrophe is to cut benefits and privatize the program. In fact, a 1935 Time magazine summary of Republican opposition to Social Security sounds an awful lot like the charges conservatives are making to Millennials today: “Wage earners, you will pay and pay in taxes … and when you are very old, you will have an I.O.U. which the U.S. Government may make good [on] if it is still solvent.’”
The doomsday predictions were wrong then and they are wrong now. The only people “stealing” anything from Millennials are those who support policies that would reduce jobs, slow growth, and rob young Americans of a secure retirement by cutting Social Security.
 Author’s analysis of Social Security Administration, “Number Of Beneficiaries By Age” (2013), available at http://www.ssa.gov/oact/progdata/byage.html.