Social Insecurity

In new book, GSSW's Kingson and economist Quinn say it's time to talk about fixing Social Security

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The end of Campaign 1996, say Prof. Joseph Quinn (Economics) and Assoc. Prof. Eric Kingson (GSSW), may herald the beginning of a sorely needed national discussion on one of America's most pressing controversies: Social Security.

Given little substantive attention in the public forum during the past year, the issue of Social Security has become needlessly, perhaps tragically, divisive, say Kingson and Quinn. They hope to aid the coming debate about the financially troubled program through publication of Social Security in the 21st Century , a collection of essays to which they both contributed. Kingson served as co-editor, and he and Quinn each co-authored chapters with other social and economic experts.

Assoc. Prof. Eric Kingson (GSSW), left, and Prof. Joseph Quinn (Economics)-They say the debate on Social Security has become needlessly, perhaps tragically, divisive. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
The book's five sections examine in detail the most salient aspects of Social Security from historical, economic, social and political perspectives. While aimed at college faculty and public policy professionals, it is by no means restricted to that audience, said Kingson, noting that it is being distributed to journalists as well as congressional offices.

"The hope for this kind of book is that it will help people examine their beliefs and understanding about Social Security and to grasp the matters at stake," said Kingson, whose co-editor was James Schulz, a professor of economics and public policy at Brandeis University.

"At the root of the program is a basic desire to provide protection to all Americans, an extension of the idea that we are all our own, and each other's, keepers," he continued. "There is a concern among many that the debate about Social Security will proceed without the values informing this program, that it will concentrate too much on bean-counting without looking at who will be affected."

"Now that the election is over," Quinn said, "and we have a president no longer burdened by the task of seeking re-election, it is a perfect time to address the present and future of Social Security. In this context, the book can serve as a good anthology, whether as the basis for coursework or for an educated layperson who wants a thorough grounding in Social Security."

Kingson notes that the authors, while fundamentally supportive of the social insurance concept, offer a range of views, analyses and potential solutions to the Social Security crisis. The essays explore areas such as generational conflict over Social Security, the program's relationship to the national economy and its disability policies.

Kingson's chapter, co-written with Schulz, examines the debate over means-testing for Social Security. Kingson and Schulz conclude that it is a poor idea, because, among other reasons, it would jeopardize political and popular support for the program.

"It's difficult to maintain the universal nature of Social Security if you are separating the interests of one group from another," Kingson said. "Means-testing also, paradoxically, acts as a disincentive for savings. The need to encourage savings is generally agreed on, but what if you do so only to discover you do not meet the standard to receive Social Security?"

In "Does Social Security Discourage Work?," Quinn and Florida State University sociologist Jill Quadango examine trends in US retirement and benefit policies, and their impact on Americans' decisions concerning retirement. Social Security, the illegalization of mandatory retirement and other such measures indicate how public policy can directly influence the public's behavior, Quinn said.

"Other countries tend to be more creative than the US in making gradual retirement possible," Quinn said. "Yet it is also true that most people in the US retire voluntarily, because they want to. But as people are living longer, well past 65 or 70, it is odd to have a retirement system at odds with the demographics of the population it serves."

Social Security's well-documented financial difficulties are considerable but not unsolvable, Kingson says, and make it imperative on President Clinton and Congress to begin restructuring the program.

"You really have to do it now," Kingson said. "We need the lead time so that the changes will take hold before the problems get any worse. But it also does a disservice to allow the issue to fester more than it has already."

Social Security in the 21st Century was conceived by the National Academy of Social Insurance, and Kingson and Quinn, along with Prof. John Williamson (Sociology), served on the organization's advisory board for the book.

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