Between 1956 and 1969, the Social Security Administration published a series of comic books intended to sell the seniors' retirement program to youngsters. One of the arguments the series makes is that Social Security is great because it relieves children and young adults of responsibility to help pay for the expenses of an aging parent. Don't want to deal with mom and dad's late-life costs? That's what federal retirement benefits for seniors are for.
Except, of course, that's not quite how the program ended up working in practice.
Via Slate, here's a page from a 1965 comic about a young woman whose dream was to get married, but her father's expenses just kept getting in the way. (Click on the image to see a larger version).
It's interesting to see Social Security make the case for itself on the basis of health care costs. The political class of 1965 didn't think it would do enough to pay for senior health care costs; that same year, Medicare and Medicaid were passed into law.
These days, the program's defenders tend to argue that Social Security should be protected because seniors have "earned" its benefits. "You've paid into these programs your whole lives. You've earned them," President Obama has said. The implication is that it's your money, taken out of your paycheck, and you should get it back. It's a highly misleading argument. Many people believe it's a government-run savings program, but in fact it works more like a straightforward transfer program: current benefits aren't paid out of individually held accounts but out of taxes paid by today's workers.
And the benefits that many seniors have or will receive are worth far more than they paid in: A single earner couple turning 65 in 2010 and earning the average wage would have paid in about $294,000 in Social Security taxes over a lifetime — but would get about $447,000 back, according to the Urban Institute. Include Medicare in the mix, and the imbalance is even larger: Lifetime taxes paid in would be about $352,000 while benefits would be about $798,000. (Two earner couples both making the average wage and retiring in 2010 would pay enough in taxes to finance their own retirement benefits, but would still get more out of the system overall when Medicare benefits are factored.)
It's funny, then, that the program was advertised as a way for young adults to avoid financial responsibility to their parents. In fact, it enforces it. Thanks to the way that Social Security's transfer financing works, today's younger workers end up paying for retirement benefits for today's seniors whether they want to or not.