Should Social Security Be Progressive?

My earlier rant on the Social Security wage base made me think of a more important question (actually, I was already thinking of it, hence the need to Google the earnings cap): Should Social Security be more progressive than it already is? The most common ways liberals want to make it more progressive are (a) eliminating the cap on taxable earnings altogether and (b) reducing benefits for high earners. For part of my brain the automatic answer is “yes,” but I think there is a reasonable argument for leaving things roughly the way they are.

First, there’s a straight-up political argument. Social Security is popular because people feel like they earn their benefits. If people thought it was a covert redistribution program, then the high earners would definitely be against it, and most of the middle class probably would be too because of the American allergy to welfare. In fact, there are certainly people who think it is “pure welfare”, like the author of the post I criticized last time around. But it isn’t:

That is from a 2006 CBO analysis of Social Security taxes and benefits, by income level. As you can see, the retirement program on its own is only modestly progressive. The really progressive parts of the program are disability insurance and survivors’ benefits. The fact is that there isn’t that much redistribution based solely on income level; most of the “redistribution” is based on disability or having your spouse die young, which feels more like insurance than welfare. It turns out that most Americans’ instincts are right: Social Security isn’t a welfare program. If you make that bottom line steeper, then at some point opinions will change.

Now some people will look at that chart and say that Social Security should be more progressive. But I’m not so sure. Conceptually speaking, I think of Social Security as contributory pension system run by the federal government along with an insurance component to protect people against various risks—disability, early death of your working spouse, bad luck that prevents you from saving enough for retirement, living too long, etc. (Disability benefits are a standard feature of private defined benefit pensions, too.) I think of this governmental function as different from the welfare function—the one that ensures that everyone person has the basic means of subsistence. (Wait, we don’t have that in this country? Well, we should.) And that’s precisely what the founders of Social Security thought; they saw it as an alternative to noncontributory old-age assistance programs, which is what the conservatives preferred. (See Jacob Hacker, The Divided Welfare State, pp. 98–99.)

So to me, it makes the most sense to have (a) a contributory pension/insurance scheme that compensates participants for losses (e.g., disability) but is not mainly about redistribution; (b) a real welfare system for the poor; and (c) a progressive tax system to fund the rest of the government. And I worry that if you make (a) too much like (b) or (c) it will become unpopular and die a slow death. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

This post originally appeared at The Baseline Scenario and is reproduced with permission.