YOU'VE LOOKED AT HOW DIFFERENT COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD APPROACH THE QUESTION OF ECONOMIC SECURITY. HOW MUCH OF AN OUTLIER ARE WE? AND IF WE'RE OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM, WILL OUR POLITICAL CULTURE EVER ALLOW US TO MOVE CLOSER TO THE MEAN? In terms of actual benefits enjoyed, the US is an outlier only with respect to a fairly limited set of high-income countries, mostly in Europe. We are a more decided outlier when it comes to how we talk about economic security or social welfare rights. While most countries today view these rights as essential constitutional or human rights owed by governments to their peoples, the United States continues to view them to a large degree as mere privileges. The upshot of this position is that there are fewer constraints on how social welfare policies can be structured, changed, and dismantled. It also means that there are fewer ways to challenge policies that have inequitable, arbitrary or discriminatory impacts on distinct groups or communities or to advocate for more comprehensive or integrated policies. This comparative lack of a rights hook has another implication. It has allowed public policy in the social welfare context to take an increasingly punitive turn. Sanctions and even criminalization have become ever more dominant aspects of US social welfare policy in fields from education, to housing, to public assistance.
An encouraging trend, however, can be found in the increasing use of rights language in the field of social welfare by both local governments and civil society advocates. Such parties are increasingly invoking the rights to health, education, housing, and fair wage and labor standards in their standard-setting and advocacy campaigns. At the same time, polls show that a majority of Americans believe that a core set of social rights are "human rights," including those to education, housing, health and social security. A bottom-up movement may thus be emerging, reflecting an evolution of normative understandings regarding the status of economic security rights in our constitutional democracy.
POLITICIANS LIKE TO SAY SOCIAL SECURITY IS GOING BROKE. HARD TRUTH OR NONSENSE? Given its inter-generational funding design, rising life expectancies, "baby boomer" retirements, and current contribution/expenditure formulae, the US Social Security system is expected to face real funding challenges over the next 60 or 70 years. In particular, although the system has long collected more revenue than it has paid out in benefits (placing the "excess" in a multi-trillion dollar Trust Fund), it is estimated that available funds will be depleted by about 2080. This is true, however, only if nothing in the system were to change over the next half-century. A mature political system committed to the basic economic security of its people would not allow this to happen. Indeed, the "fixes" here are relatively simple and straightforward. Removing the cap on taxed income (so the rich pay an equal share of payroll tax with the poor), increasing payroll taxes across the board to accommodate longer expected life spans, raising the retirement age or marginally reducing benefits are some of the oft-most suggested responses. Funding may likewise be added from other government sources. In short, while funding issues must be addressed over the next half century, and creative new designs can and should be considered, there is no crisis in the US Social Security system that cannot easily be overcome by mature political thinkers.