This is part of a week-long series about Social Security. If you want to read the whole series, links are provided at the bottom of this post.
Through this series, I’ve given you what I hope is a decent look at how Social Security works, particularly in contrast to other kinds of funding for retirement. What I haven’t done yet is talk about why we even have such a thing as Social Security. What does Social Security add to our society generally, beyond its humanitarian roots and providing an income that is recirculated into the economy (both were part of the original rationale for Social Security)? What would greater guaranteed benefits do for us?
We Don’t Live With Grandma Anymore
This sounds a bit snarky, but Social Security reflected the change from an agricultural society to an industrial, urban one. Accompanying this change was a move to nuclear families and high mobility. Living with multiple generations of adults in a single household is far from the norm these days, and having generations separated by a state or more isn’t uncommon.
There’s a fair amount of information pointing to the idea that we like it this way. As much as we like to get multiple generations together for special occasions, we also like time to ourselves. We like to run our own households our own way. Younger generations make in-law jokes. Older generations collect into communities where kids are much less likely to stray onto anyone’s lawns.
This isn’t new, either. Inter-generational conflict was a mainstay of literary drama set in farming communities. If good fences make good neighbors, closed front doors sometimes make for happier families. Social Security provides a means of continued independence, though it can’t currently do the job on its own.
It isn’t always a bad thing to have people leave the workforce. It makes room for new people to enter. If older people who don’t want to work don’t have to, more jobs are available for younger workers who have families and student debt to pay for. Freedom from a work schedule becomes a reward for a lifetime of work rather than a barrier to settling into an adult life.
Retirees who still want to work have the leisure to explore new paths, share expertise through consulting, or indulge in entrepreneurship. There is still plenty of work in our society that we don’t pay for, as well, and a secure retirement frees people up for volunteer labor. It allows them to find work they consider meaningful instead of work they feel they need in order to survive.
Note that all the benefits listed in this section would also apply to universal health care.
Having retirement benefits that follow us anywhere in our careers frees us up to work where we will. If retirement benefits are the same from company to company, we can choose where we work based on the kind of work we want to do or on job flexibility or on location. We can decide we won’t work for abusive bosses or in corrosive atmospheres. We can work for small companies or start-ups, which can’t always afford the administrative costs of offering retirement savings plans.
We can compare compensation from company to company more easily too. If every company pays for retirement benefits the same way, we can pay attention simply to salary, without having to figure out how benefits change the picture.
We don’t just pay an annuity to our oldest citizens. We also provide them with health care. That health care can get significantly more expensive if preventive care or maintenance care is allowed to slip. This means prescription drugs, which are not 100% covered under Medicare. This means doctor visits, the transportation for which is not usually free. This means good nutrition, which is easier to achieve with both money and good transportation, particularly for those in urban cores.
Making it easy for retirees to pay for all of these cuts down on retirees who don’t look after themselves because they don’t feel they can afford to. Having retirees who look out for their own health decreases the amount we all pay for their health care.
Those are just a few of the additional practical benefits of providing a financially secure retirement. What others can you think of?
The full series: