There is a key element missing in the ongoing debate about Social Security’s future: an understanding of the impact the program has on children. It’s not just that children will eventually need Social Security when they grow old—millions of children currently rely on Social Security to stay out of poverty.
Just ask Benjamin, whose father—a distinguished Connecticut lawyer—committed suicide shortly after being placed on anti-anxiety medication. Benjamin was 12. When their life insurance company refused to pay the family’s death claim, Benjamin’s mother used the family’s remaining savings to pay off their mortgage so that they could count on a place to live. Then, she turned to Social Security to help them make ends meet.
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In 2014, 3.2 million children under 18 received Social Security. Families like Benjamin’s receive benefits through the survivor insurance program, which provides income to the dependents of covered workers who have died. Children under 18 also qualify for Social Security if they are the dependents of a parent or guardian who is disabled or retired.
But it turns out that’s only half the story. A new study by my organization, the Center for Global Policy Solutions, found that official reports overlook children who live in extended families where someone receives a Social Security check. According to data from the U.S. Census and the Social Security Administration, an additional 3.2 million children receive indirect support in this manner from Social Security. That doubles previous estimates of the total number of children receiving benefits, bringing it to 6.4 million. It also means that 9 percent of all U.S. children benefit from Social Security, making it one of the nation’s largest antipoverty programs for children.
Since 2001, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children benefitting indirectly from Social Security, as a result of larger socioeconomic forces. Economic inequality, income stagnation, immigration, and the recession have all contributed to the rise of extended, multi-generation families with shared living arrangements.
There has also been a significant increase in the number of grandparents who are caring for grandchildren without the direct involvement of their parents. This underscores the fact that Social Security is a multigenerational program that serves individuals at every stage of life. And while white children are still the vast majority of child recipients, children of color represent a rapidly growing share of child Social Security beneficiaries, reflecting the nation’s changing demographics.
Given its broad reach, Social Security is an underappreciated policy mechanism that—along with the more frequently discussed examples like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit—should be expanded to boost economic security for vulnerable families. As policymakers look for solutions to offset economic pressures on U.S. workers, they should integrate additional anti-poverty strategies into Social Security—such as child allowances, college assistance, and paid family leave.
If national debates over the past decade are to be heeded, there are those who will inevitably argue that the nation can’t afford to expand Social Security, even though we could by lifting the program’s cap on taxable wages (currently $118,500), and making other minor adjustments (like increasing the payroll tax by 1/20th of one percent over a 20-year period). They will claim we need to cut benefits in the name of deficit reduction, even though scholars have shown that Social Security doesn’t have a direct effect on the national deficit or debt. They will argue that Social Security trust funds aren’t sound or real, even though the bonds in its trust funds are backed by the United States government (the same guarantee that ensures the value of the dollar). And, they will completely ignore the 6.4 million child beneficiaries in their zeal to redirect the program’s funds into Wall Street-invested private retirement accounts for older adults.
The fact that each of these anti-expansion arguments can be rebutted misses the larger point: Workers and their children are caught in a broken economy. There is an urgent, growing need for policy solutions that can strengthen the economic security of American families while ensuring children have a real chance at success in life. Social Security, and social insurance more broadly, are proven policy tools that can help meet this need.
It certainly helped Benjamin, who is now a 35-year-old elementary school music teacher. His mother still counts on Social Security, and Benjamin says if his family didn’t have it when he was growing up, they would have been “over the edge for sure.”