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Social Security Works for Everyone: An Interview with Nancy Altman

*This interview is the first installment of BPR’s series, The Last Line of Defense: How Expansive Should the US Social Safety Net Be? In it, we are spotlighting differing viewpoints on the efficacy of widening our social safety net, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the heated debates in Congress over President Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Altman to a six-year term, starting October 1, 2017, on the Social Security Advisory Board. The seven-person Board is a bipartisan, independent federal government agency that advises the President, Congress, and the Commissioner of Social Security. Altman has authored The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble (2005) as well as The Truth About Social Security: The Founders’ Words Refute Revisionist History (2018). She is also the co-author of Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All (2015) and, most recently, Social Security Works for Everyone! Protecting and Expanding America’s Most Popular Social Program (2021).

Altman has been featured on PBS NewsHour, MSNBC, and Fox News, among other news outlets, where she has shared her Social Security expertise. She has also published in dozens of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. From 1983 to 1989, Altman was on the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and taught courses on private pensions and Social Security at the Harvard Law School. In 1982, she was Alan Greenspan’s assistant in his position as chairman of the bipartisan commission that generated the 1983 Social Security amendments. Altman received an A.B. from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Sam Kolitch: You have made the case that Social Security balances individualism and collectivism. How so? 

Nancy Altman: Social Security is so widely accepted and so popular across the ideological spectrum, even given how polarized we are, because it balances what you are talking about: this idea of community with the idea of individual effort. In fact, President Dwight Eisenhower called Social Security an example of “sturdy self-reliance.” Benefits are only paid on a wage record. You or someone associated with you needs to work enough credits to become insured. So it has that individual part. But Social Security also has the idea of pooling risk. It is an insurance. Social Security is, as they say, life insurance, disability insurance, and joint and survivor annuities. Some of us may die at thirty, and some of us may live to 110. And starting out, nobody knows which bucket they’re going to fall into. So that’s the collective nature of it. 

SK: Which dishonest claims about Social Security particularly rile you up? 

NA: At the beginning, in the 1930s, there were claims that Social Security was socialism. There were claims that this was an inappropriate role of government, that this should be left to the private sector. These are value-based arguments, and I have no problem with those. These claims always lost out because the American people saw the value, overwhelmingly, of this program. But those were honest debates on what the appropriate role of government should be. 

What happened around the 1970s, when I really started to work on the program, was people started saying that they wanted to make the program voluntary and that we couldn’t afford it—which is dishonest. It unquestionably is affordable. It costs about 5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At the end of the twenty-first century, it’ll be about 6% of GDP. There’s no question we can afford it. This is what riles me up, along with arguments that tell young people, “You’re not going to see any benefits.” 

SK: Is that argument justified if Social Security has projected that by 2034 it will be “unable to pay scheduled benefits in full and on time”?

NA: Social Security is carefully managed and prudently overseen. Every year, Congress requires it to report its short-term and long-term status. Social Security has been doing this since 1941, which was when benefits were first provided. It has been doing this in times of war and times of recession. Social Security has never missed an annual report. And it projects out seventy years—three-quarters of a century—in order to assure the American people that the program is carefully watched. When you project out that far into the future, sometimes you’re going to show a balance, sometimes you’re going to show an unexpected surplus, sometimes you’re going to show an unexpected deficit. And when there’s an unexpected shortfall, there’s plenty of time for Congress to act. 

Yes, Social Security has been projecting a shortfall. Yet if Congress took no action, it would still be able to pay all of its benefits for over a decade. But in 2034, Social Security will only be able to pay 80% of scheduled benefits if Congress doesn’t act. Now, 80% is pretty good. That’s why when they say, “Oh, you’ll never see any benefits,” it’s false. But of course, 80% is not enough, especially because the benefits are too low. But what we’re talking about here is just a very small shortfall. Social Security is about 89% funded for the next twenty-five years. It is about 83% funded over the next seventy-five years. So Congress needs to address the shortfall, and this is a question of values. We can afford not only to fully fund Social Security but also to expand it. I think we should do both. 

SK: Why, then, should young people care about Social Security? 

NA: When I was young, I was incorrectly told that I was the victim of “greedy geezers” who were taking all the benefits. Now, I guess I’m a greedy geezer and you’re the victim. And someday you’ll be the greedy geezer and your children will be the victims (laughs). 

The idea of Social Security is in its name. In addition to providing cash benefits, it is supposed to provide a sense of security and peace of mind. So people in college, people getting started in life, and people entering their first jobs should know that if something terrible happens—disability or death—they and their dependents will be taken care of [if they contribute to Social Security]. And if these young people are fortunate and they live to old age, we’ve got a system in place where they can retire and maintain their standards of living. People who are fighting to protect benefits are not greedy geezers and are not just looking out for themselves. They are looking out for their children and grandchildren. 

Also, one of the points I always make is that people often think of Social Security like, “Oh, it’s in the distant future. It’s for older people.” Actually, it’s providing disability benefits. So if, heaven forbid, you were to walk outside and get hit by a bus and not be able to continue school or not be able to work, you would receive benefits. If you’re married with young children, it serves as most people’s life insurance. And so Social Security is life insurance and disability insurance for risks that are not that likely but devastating if they happen.  

SK: Thinking more broadly, why is now the right time to expand Social Security? 

NA: I think the Democratic Party lost its way in the ’80s and ’90s in its response to Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton saying, “The era of big government is over.” And even in the beginning of Obama’s presidency, Democrats were pulled to the right. Yet when President Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, he talked about it as a cornerstone not yet complete. The idea was that we would be expanding Social Security in every generation. In 1939, survivors benefits were added. In 1956, disability benefits were added. Medicare, which many of us think of as Social Security, was added for seniors in 1965, and it was expanded for people with disabilities in 1972. 

Everyone is dependent on Social Security. Two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income, and one-third of seniors rely on it for all of their income. But in the future, I think young people are going to be more dependent on it. For one thing, you all have got this overwhelming student debt, which my generation did not have. You have a decline in traditional private employers’ provided pensions. And what you need is not savings but insurance—and in fact, private 401(k)s have shown themselves to be inadequate. So for your generation, unfortunately, I think Social Security is going to be more important than ever and you’re going to be more reliant on it. That’s why we’ve got to expand the benefits so that they’re fully adequate. And the wealthiest among us need to pay their fair share so that we can spread the cost. 

SK: Those who argue that we should not expand Social Security and other safety net programs often claim that doing so would be fiscally irresponsible. What is your rebuttal to this? 

NA: We are the wealthiest nation in the world and we are at the wealthiest moment in our history. This is a matter of values and what the people want. All of these proposals—whether it’s expanding Social Security, whether it’s paid family and medical leave, or whether it’s Medicare for All—poll extremely well. 

SK: There have been increasing calls to expand Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides a minimum level of income for people who are at least 65 years old, blind, or disabled. Why and how should SSI be expanded? 

NA: The Declaration of Independence says that we’re all created equal. And I think progressives today have that same idea—that diversity is valuable, that everyone has something to contribute. There is a long, ugly history in this country of the idea that there are some who are undeserving. There were the social Darwinists at the turn of the twentieth century who believed they were the fittest because they had the best genes. This is really ugly stuff—and I think you see that reflected in some of these Social Security programs. 

President Joe Biden ran on expanding Social Security and expanding SSI, which is fantastic. Social Security disability benefits and SSI benefits are extremely important and work well, but they are way too low in both cases. For SSI, the maximum federal benefit is about three-quarters of the federal poverty line. What Biden ran on was at least bringing SSI’s federal benefit up to 100% of the federal poverty line, which could really end poverty among the elderly and people with disabilities. There is also an effort to get rid of means-testing since it’s very invasive, intrusive, and punitive. If a family member gives you a bag of groceries, you have to report it to the Social Security Administration, and then your [SSI] benefits are reduced based on the value of the groceries. This is ridiculous and a waste of resources. This is the opposite of family values. 

SK: Some have argued that Black people should not be in favor of Social Security since “any program targeted at the elderly will have a bias against minorities,” who on average have shorter life expectancies. Others have also cited that Black and Hispanic people receive retirement benefits at much lower rates than white people. Are these fair criticisms against expanding Social Security? 

NA: No. I’m glad you’re raising all of these points because you asked me earlier about what makes my blood boil, and you’re now making my blood boil. The points you just raised are not ideological arguments nor value-based arguments. They are based, intentionally or unintentionally, on misinformation. Social Security is particularly important to those who have been disadvantaged in the workplace—people of color and women—who have been discriminated against and have gotten lower earnings. 

Let’s get to the underlying root of African Americans’ shorter life expectancies. This is a travesty, and that’s why we need Medicare for All. That’s why we need to make sure that people in physically demanding jobs have appropriate workplace safety standards. That’s why we need to raise the minimum wage. [The arguments you mentioned] are used to undermine confidence in Social Security, and they fail to say that people of color disproportionately become disabled and disproportionately die leaving dependents. While they live shorter lives and get retirement benefits for fewer years, they are more likely to get disability benefits and survivors benefits. So when you look at the whole package, Social Security is quite fair. 

SK: What is your response to the claim that because Social Security was founded in 1935 and has not been expanded in nearly fifty years, it is still imbued with a male “breadwinner model”?

NA: I think that’s a misreading of history. Women were advantaged, not disadvantaged, by Social Security because they would always get their own benefits. They could also get a spousal benefit. I am certainly not saying nor do I think any rational person could say that there wasn’t extreme discrimination against women back in the ’30s, including in the ’40s, ’50s, and even today. But Social Security was actually designed to help low-income people, people who are disadvantaged, women who worked inside the home, and women who worked outside of the home.

SK: How might increasing immigration to the United States help fund the expansion of Social Security? 

NA: We have an aging population, which is increasing costs for Social Security. But the reason costs are increasing is not just because there are so many more older people or older people are living so much longer. It’s also because fertility rates are dropping. So you can think of immigration as a kind of fertility: it is young people coming into our country. Immigrants tend to have larger families and they tend to be younger, so they’re generally contributing to Social Security for a longer amount of time and they’re having children themselves. Thus, immigration is a net gain to Social Security, the same way it would be a net gain if everybody had more children. 

The interesting point about this, which nobody talks about, is that undocumented workers actually contribute more to Social Security than legal immigrants. Undocumented workers often contribute to Social Security on made-up Social Security numbers, and thus their contributions go into a suspense fund because they can’t be allocated to any workers’ benefits. So they’re paying into Social Security, but they’re not getting anything out of it. And I believe that if you can prove that you were the one contributing to Social Security, you should be able to get benefits. But that’s not how the law works; undocumented workers do not get benefits. 

SK: Lastly, can you confirm or deny whether or not the Biden administration has reached out to you to be the next Commissioner of Social Security?

NA: The answer is no (laughs). However, my name has been put into the ring. In fact, Bernie Sanders is supporting me, and I would model myself after [my mentor and longest-serving Social Security Commissioner] Robert M. Ball. But the people in the Biden administration have an important question in front of them: Do they want a commissioner who’s just going to keep their head down and ensure there’s no controversy, or do they want a commissioner who’s a real spokesperson and champion for the program? We’ll see which way they come out. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.