Touching the Third Rail
By Bryan Ashkettle
The GOP House and the Biden Administration are currently locked in a budgetary battle. The Republicans wish to cut non-defense, social programs. The Biden Administration wants to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for entitlements. Although the Republicans in Congress oppose the tax increase, they have taken Social Security and Medicare off the table. Even the most conservative fiscal hawk knows that these programs are extremely popular with Americans, and they do not wish to touch the third rail.
When teaching fiscal policy with my government students, to increase their efficacy on this issue, I explain to them the fragile state of the U.S. Social Security system. Since many of my students have part time jobs, I explain to them that they are currently paying into social security without the guarantee that the program will be solvent when they reach retirement age. The Social Security Trustee Report believes that benefits will be depleted by 2035 (OASDI Trustees Report, 2022). This is well before our students will even think about retirement. I ask my students, “what is it called when their government takes their money without their permission, with the knowledge that they will not be able to pay them back upon their retirement?” The answer, simply, is theft. This leads to the discussion of why the program has not been changed. Powerful lobbies, like the AARP, among others, insist that benefits remain the same. Yet, for the Baby Boomers, their Social Security is very safe, while their grandchildren’s retirement is not. Along with the government squandering federal surpluses that could go into making social security viable for future generations, the aging of the U.S. puts the biggest strain on the system as one out of every five Americans are now over the age of 65. This fact is partnered with the prediction of life expectancies increasing in the future (Vespa, 2021). Perhaps Social Security itself, might want to get its affairs in order. With all of this in mind, I created a lesson that urges my students to get even, rather than getting mad.
Lesson Objective – To have junior and senior American Government students research, evaluate, and/or create their own solution that fixes social security in a utilitarian way for future generations.
Background – In groups, have the students imagine that they are part of a joint congressional committee tasked with making social security solvent for future generations. Their recommended solution must be grandfathered in such a way, as to not hurt their grandfather’s retirement. Since 2035 is the year of reckoning, that is their focus year to change this beloved entitlement.
- Put the students in groups with a mix of political ideologies to achieve a balanced policy. In my class, each committee was around five students.
- Research the data base below to choose what they perceive as the best overall fix. Urge the students to think outside the box and not simply cut and paste a previous proposal. The best fixes are often multifaceted, hybrid approaches of many proposals. Tell them that uniqueness will be rewarded if it is pragmatic.
The source below is from the Social Security Administration and provides all of the proposed bills from various congressmen of both parties, past and present. This data base runs the ideological gamut, from proposed bills from Senators Daniel Moynihan to Bernie Sanders. I also briefly describe the concepts of privatization, lock boxes, means testing, changes in eligibility age, reduction or increase in benefits. Students are also encouraged to use other sources from various think tanks like American Enterprise Institute and Brookings.
- Prepare and present a 5 to10 minute presentation that sells to their peers why they believe this is the best fix for the future of Social Security using the rubric below. Students can use Google slides, digital documents, or their own created visuals. I typically provide one day to prepare and one day to present.
Evaluation – The rubric is a 3-point scale (3 being the highest) for each of the 5 categories for a total of 15 points. We also choose the best proposed solution by a closed ballot vote made by the other groups who are not allowed to vote for their own proposal. Typically, each group gets all 15 points with the winning committee getting 5 points extra credit for the best solution.
- knowledge about the solution – How well do you know the solution? (1, 2, or 3)
- practicality / pragmatism – Would this work? (1, 2, or 3)
- artistry / instruction / graphics / passion – How well do you sell the solution? (1, 2, or 3)
- uniqueness / originality – How much of your policy is borrowed? (1, 2, or 3)
- potential allies and enemies – Who would be for and against your policy? (1, 2, or 3)
Although I strive to make my instruction playful through simulations, perhaps the time for play is over. Our students need to think of themselves as problem solvers. Our democracy survives only to the degree we have an enlightened, inquisitive citizenry.
Lew, J. J., Aaron, H. J., Apfel, K., & Reischauer, R. D. (2022, March 9). How to reform social security for future generations of Americans. Brookings. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/how-to-reform-social-security-for-future-generations-of-americans/
Social Security. The 2022 OASDI Trustees Report. (2022, June 2). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.ssa.gov/oact/TR/2022/index.html
Social Security. Proposals to Change Social Security. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.ssa.gov/oact/solvency/index.html?mibextid=uevf24&#!
Vespa, J. (2021, October 9). The U.S. joins other countries with large aging populations. Census.gov. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/03/graying-america.html
Warshawsky M. (2022, March 21) Reforming social security | American Enterprise Institute – AEI. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.aei.org/articles/reforming-social-security/
Dr. Bryan Ashkettle is an AP US Government Teacher at Solon High School, Solon, Ohio. A College Board and Ursuline College consultant, he lives in Chagrin Falls with wife Stefanie (also a teacher), daughter Julia, daughter Frankie, and niece Jayla. He is (sadly), a Cleveland sports fan.