Cut Social Security? Ask a Senior!

President Obama's recent proposal to cut Social Security's cost-of-living increases is part of a major national debate, but one that many students know little about. In this activity, students find out about Social Security  by interviewing a senior family member or friend about it, and through reading and small and large-group discussion. 

To the teacher: 

In his 2014 federal budget, President Obama proposed to cut Social Security's cost-of-living increases.  His move intensified an ongoing national discussion about the future of this major social program.  In this lesson students read and discuss some basic facts about Social Security.  For homework they ask an older family member or friend about their experiences with Social Security. Then, on the following day (or later in the week), they discuss what they have learned in small groups and as a class and consider what if any actions they want to take on the issue.
For more background on Social Security and the debates surrounding it, see:

Also see our recent lesson on the budget deficit debate


Day one:
Discussion, reading, and homework assignment

Tell students that today and tomorrow, you'll be discussing a major social program that is in the news right now: Social Security. Write Social Security on the board or chart paper.

  • Ask students: What is Social Security?  Record some responses. Elicit that Social Security is a federal insurance program for retirement. Workers and their employers pay into it throughout their working lives. Then when workers retire (or become disabled), Social Security provides them with a regular monthly income to help them continue to meet expenses.
  • Tell students: Social Security is in the news right now.  Why?  Elicit or explain that it is in the news because some politicians, including President Obama, are proposing to cut Social Security benefits. What have students heard about this? Why is the President proposing to cut Social Security?  Help students understand that many Republicans and Democrats have been pressuring the President to cut what they call "entitlements" as part of their push to reduce the federal deficit.
  • Ask students: What percentage of people over the age of 65 do they think is enrolled in Social Security?  The answer: over 90%. 

Then ask student to read the fact sheet below. 

Student Reading: Social Security Basics

1.     Social Security was created during the Great Depression. It was enacted in 1935, following decades of organizing and public pressure to do something about pervasive, grinding poverty among the elderly.
2.     Social Security is a social insurance program. Workers pay into it while they are working, and then collect from it when they retire.  Currently, workers pay 6.2% of their paycheck into Social Security (a "payroll tax") and their employer pays another 6.2%. Only the first $113,700 of people's income is currently taxed.
3.     Social Security is run by the federal government, and is considered one of the most efficient bureaucracies in the world. It spends only 1% on administrative overhead. (By comparison, private health insurance companies spend about 12% on overhead.)  
4.     Social Security issues monthly payments to 55 million Americans (about one in six Americans).
5.     The average Social Security monthly payment is about $1,250, but the amount varies depending on a person's previous earnings.
6.     About 60% of Social Security money goes to support seniors; the rest supports people who are disabled and can't work.
7.     Social Security provides at least two-thirds of the income for working class and middle class retirees.
8.     About 6% of the workforce is not covered by Social Security. That is, they don't pay into it, and also don't receive benefits.  These people include some state and local government employees and railway employees, most of whom pay into different retirement systems; and some farmworkers, domestic workers and self-employed people.
9.     Social Security is a "pay as you go" system. The money each of us pays in as workers is going to support current retirees. Then when it's our turn to retire, we draw from funds the current generation of workers is paying in.  
10.  However, since 1984, Social Security has also built up a "trust fund," a kind of savings account. The administrators of the program planned this fund because they knew that the next generation of workers to retire (the baby boomers) was an especially big one, and would draw more from the system than the following smaller generations could support (under the current formula).
11.  It is projected that the Social Security system can continue as it is for the next 20 years (till 2033) with no changes at all. After that, it will only be able to pay 75% of current benefits unless Congress makes some changes to increase its revenue.  There are many proposals for how to do this, including removing the cap on what income is included in Social Security payroll tax (currently only the first $113,700 is taxed).

After students have finished the reading, ask:  

  • What questions do you have about the reading?
  • How can they be answered?

Tell students that in April 2013, President Obama proposed a federal budget that included a cut to Social Security's "cost-of-living" increases.  This means that payments would not keep up as well with the rising costs seniors have to pay (for healthcare, for example). 
Many people are opposed to this proposal.  In a recent poll, 58% of Americans oppose any cuts to Social Security.  

Many Democrats and progressives are mobilizing protests against any cuts to Social Security, and some progressives have called for strengthening Social Security now. Meanwhile many Republicans said the cuts didn't go far enough. While most Republicans say they support Social Security in general, many think it should scaled back. Some Republicans have proposed privatizing Social Security (that is, turning it into a system of private investment accounts).
Ask students for their initial thoughts on this debate.
Now ask students to think of a senior member of their family, a friend or a neighbor that they could ask about Social Security.  For homework tonight (or this week, if you think students need more lead time), assign students to interview this person, asking these questions (at a minimum!):
1. Do you receive Social Security benefits?
2. What is one thing you think young people should know about Social Security?
3. Do you think Social Security benefits should be cut, increased or stay the same? Why?
Ask students to record the responses. Tomorrow, we will report on and discuss what each of us has learned.

Day Two:
Report-back and discussion

Tell students: Today we're going to continue our discussion of Social Security, and we'll start off by working in small groups.
Ask for a show of hands: Was everyone able to find someone to interview about Social Security? 
Divide students into groups of four or five.  Make sure that each group includes at least one person who was able to interview a senior about Social Security.
When students are sitting in circles in their groups, tell them that each student has three  minutes to report to the group on their homework assignment. Each student should answer these questions:

  • Who was the person you interviewed (a grandparent, another relative, a friend, a neighbor...)?
  • Does the person receive Social Security benefits?
  • What was the one thing they thought young people should know about Social Security?
  • Did they think that Social Security should be cut, increased or stay the same?  Why?

Give students enough time so that everyone in the group has time to report briefly. Then give students an additional 3 minutes in their group to discuss this question:  

  • What do WE think about cutting Social Security? If we don't yet have an opinion, what information do we need to make a decision?

After the three minutes are up, reconvene the whole group and ask for volunteers to respond to these questions:
1.  Who did you interview?  Was it easy or hard to find someone to interview?
2. What was it like to talk to them about Social Security?
3.  What is one thing the person they interviewed thought we should know about Social Security?  (Record responses on the board)
4.  Did the person they interviewed think Social Security benefits should be cut, increased or stay the same?  Ask for a show of hands and tally the responses in the three categories.
5.  What reasons did the person you interviewed give for their opinion?
Now ask students:

  • What do YOU now think about the proposal to cut Social Security benefits?
  • Why do you think this proposal is on the table - especially given that most Americans oppose cutting this program?

Remind students that Social Security, like most social programs, was created because people organized for it.  No matter what our opinion is about Social Security now (improve it, cut it, or keep it the same), our voices and actions matter in this debate.
Ask students:

  • What can we do to express our opinions about Social Security - either individually or as a group? 
  • If we want to act as a group, what are the steps we should take? 
  • Do we need to gather more information about Social Security to be effective in our organizing?
  • If so, what do we need to find out? How will we get this information?