I spent part of my 32-year career with the Social Security Administration as a public affairs specialist in San Diego. A big aspect of that job was running around town giving speeches to various groups and organizations. As you might guess, that involved a lot of trips to senior centers and other places where older folks might hang out. It also meant talks to civic groups like Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. And believe it or not, it occasionally involved lectures to high school students.
You might think the last thing a high school kid would be interested in, or want to learn about, would be Social Security. And you'd be right. But I thought it was a good idea to get teenagers to think about the subject -- from both a historical and economic viewpoint, and from the perspective of their own budding relationship with the program. Today, I will share with you some of the things I told these kids.
The first thing I did was play a word association game. I asked them this question: "What do you think of when I say the words 'Social Security'?" Inevitably, their responses would be along the lines of "old people" or "my grandparents."
But then I would surprise them by telling them that when I was in high school, I was getting a monthly check from Social Security. I asked them why that was. They usually had surprised and querulous looks on their faces. But inevitably, one of the kids would say, "Maybe one of your parents died, and you are getting a check on his or her Social Security record." That was the right answer. (My dad died when I was young.) And a little further discussion would unveil the fact that there were a couple kids in each classroom in similar circumstances.
Benefits to the children of deceased workers is a big part of Social Security that many people -- high schoolers and their parents and grandparents -- forget about.
After my introductory word association game, I would then describe the history of Social Security. And I realized quickly that talking to them about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal programs was kind of like talking to them about dinosaurs. It was all ancient history to a teenager. But I did ask them what they thought happened to old people before Social Security came along. How did they get along financially? Where did they live? They were surprised to learn that many older folks moved in with their grown children after they retired. A couple smart-alecky kids would usually say something like, "I sure wouldn't want my grandma living with me!"
I told them that before Social Security, well over half of all senior citizens in this country lived below the poverty level. That number is less than 10 percent today. Following this discussion, it was not uncommon for some of the students to point out that they thought their grandparents were rich because they spent a lot of time traveling to Europe and other places. I suggested to them that Social Security was more than a little bit responsible for their well-being.
I also liked to talk to the kids about Social Security and economics -- especially how Social Security fits into the overall federal budget. I'd ask them this question: What do you think the federal government spends most of its money on? I would always get back a whole variety of answers, probably reflecting their parents' own preconceived notions about government spending. Here are some of the most common answers I'd get: "welfare"... "bombs"..."foreign aid"..."food stamps"..."drug enforcement."
I would then draw a big circle on a blackboard and tell them to think of that circle as the federal government's spending pie. I would divide that pie into four sections. I'd then label the first piece of the pie "Defense and Homeland Security" because it makes about a fourth of all federal spending. Then I would label the second big piece of the pie "Health Care" -- primarily the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
Next, I would ask what the third big piece of the federal spending pie might be. Even though a few would shout out things like food stamps or foreign aid, by now most of the class understood where I was going with this. And they correctly said Social Security. Actually, Social Security is the biggest piece of the pie, making up about 28 percent of all federal expenditures.
And that means everything else the federal government does comes out of that last piece of pie -- the remaining one-fourth of federal spending. That's pretty amazing when you think about it. The government spends money on thousands of programs and projects -- NASA, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Park system, the Forest Service, maintaining foreign embassies and consulates, drug enforcement, food stamps, school lunch programs, transportation projects, and on and on. Again, hundreds and hundreds of all these different programs each get a tiny fraction of that quarter piece of pie that's left after we pay for Social Security, health care and defense. That's why any talk of reducing government spending without putting those big three on the chopping block is just a lot of hot air.
Finally, I would talk to the kids about their own relationship with Social Security. And when you are in high school, it's a budding romance. (OK, I agree, that's the wrong term). Most of them were just getting their first jobs at McDonald's or the local grocery store or wherever. And I would tell them to make sure their employer had their Social Security number correctly recorded so that they would get proper credit for whatever taxes they were paying.
Today, when I think back to those earlier times teaching high school kids about Social Security, I realize that most of them are now pushing 40, probably have families of their own, and have been working for many years now. I wonder if they remember anything I told them.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.