Does Social Security need to be fixed?
As Democrats and Republicans grapple over how to reduce the government’s budget deficit in the face of rising costs for pensions and health care, whether Social Security should be touched remains one of the most controversial topics in American budgetary politics.
But something big is missing to the debate over the finances of what is still the largest component of the social safety net: an understanding of how well it does its job.
When you peek under the hood, it doesn’t always look so great. Indeed, this supposedly great redistributive program — which uses a broad tax on all workers to protect the elderly from poverty — exhibits some fairly stark regressive features.
One well-known regressive feature comes from the rule that benefits must be annuitized, paid out over time in monthly installments rather than as a lump sum. This means that richer people who tend to live longer will get a bigger benefit than poorer people with shorter life spans. Survivor benefits redistribute money from the singles — who don’t get the benefit — to the married, who do.
Eugene Steuerle, Karen Smith and Caleb Quakenbush of the Urban Institute in Washington just discovered another unsuspected regressive...