Emanuel misses the mark with ‘Children’s Opportunity Fund’

In the New York Times  this past weekend, Ezekiel Emanuel laid out a proposal to allow Social Security retirees to donate a portion of their benefits to a fund that would invest in a child’s health, education, and living standards. While this is obviously a positive idea, the premise of his proposal leaves something to be desired. In fact, Emanuel’s article presents a false choice to the American people: that we must choose between a strong social insurance system or investing in children.

Emanuel’s proposal would allow Social Security recipients to voluntarily forgo their benefits—he suggests plausibly for three years after reaching the full retirement age—and divert those benefits into a “Children’s Opportunity Bequest and Fund” to help either their own grandchildren or any other child identified by their Social Security number. Over at Slate, Matt Yglesias pointed out the obvious: Wealthy grandparents don’t necessarily need a special fund to pass excess cash to their grandchildren or to charitable organizations (charitable giving is already incentivized as an itemized tax deduction). Beyond this point, I take issue with the way Emanuel presents Social Security—as a transfer of wealth to the elderly that is taking away from our kids.

Emanuel’s entire basis for propagating the policy is centered on the notion that “many Social Security recipients are quite well-to-do.” Well yes, some are. But most are not, and advancing the myth that Social Security recipients are rich only serves to fuel the fire for cutting or changing the program.

Social Security recipients are not, on the whole, well-off. The average annual retirement benefit for retired workers was $14,106 in 2010, just above the federal poverty line for an individual living alone. These benefits, while modest, go a long way towards keeping elderly Americans out of poverty and ensuring that many enjoy an adequate, albeit modest, standard of living. For more than half of the over-65 population, Social Security constitutes more than 50 percent of their income. In 2010 the program lifted 14 million seniors and 6 million younger Americans out of poverty.

The figure below (from the forthcoming edition of EPI’s The State of Working America) shows how Social Security has helped dramatically lower elderly poverty rates. Notably, elderly poverty did not shoot up during the Great Recession—many thanks to Social Security. Rather than a program that makes well-off seniors even richer, Social Security prevents seniors’ standard of living from falling even farther behind that of working-age Americans. Though there are wealthy recipients who don’t rely on Social Security for a significant part of their retirement income, they are relatively few in number, and reducing their benefits would provide somewhat modest cost savings while undermining political support for this broad-based, contributory, social insurance system.

In his article, Emanuel states that “this huge transfer of wealth is harming our children.” This is patently false. The children of today and tomorrow are not harmed or threatened by a strong social insurance system that will provide the bulk of their retirement income and protect them from the hazards and vicissitudes of life. America’s children are instead harmed by politicians that chronically undervalue and underinvest in their health, nutrition, and education—particularly for lower-income households and communities. They are disadvantaged, for instance, by the cuts to nondefense discretionary (NDD) spending enacted by the Budget Control Act. And children would fare much worse under the deep cuts to NDD spending, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, and other income support programs proposed by the House Republican Budget Resolution. If lawmakers were willing to invest in all children, they could take the necessary steps to do so, and those investments would generate tangible returns. EPI has illustrated a way to do so in our budget blueprint, Investing in America’s Economy, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) has done so in the Budget for All. Both plans would finance trillions in increased public investment while achieving fiscal sustainability.

With this proposal, Emanuel pits social insurance against other priorities. As EPI and the CPC have shown, this is unnecessary and only serves to undermine programs that are already under attack. It also promotes the idea that hugely important investments should be left to the charitable resolve of the well-off. Investing in our children does not require wealthy Social Security recipients to voluntarily forgo Social Security benefits; it requires the wealthy, of all ages, to pay their fair share in taxes. Investing in our children and other national priorities will require reforming and modernizing our tax code to address the discrepancy between these priorities and the revenues needed to fund them.

In sum, this article pits the young against the old, and in doing so, steers the discussion of public investment—both what we can accomplish and who should be paying for it—way off course.