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Grade 9-12

Social Security and the National Debt

Updated: August 12 2019,


What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients?


  • A bedrock of the social contract as envisioned in the New Deal
  • A redistributionist Ponzi scheme that perpetuates fraud on the American public and silently ushers in a collectivist, socialist mentality
  • A looming budgetary disaster that nobody wants to talk about—the third rail of politics
  • The basis of the modern social welfare state that is fundamentally sustainable and must be preserved

Social Security, the largest program of the federal government, can be all of these things to different people. Why is it so important and so popular, and yet so controversial? What is it, what does it intend to do, and does it successfully achieve that goal? Is it really in jeopardy? What are its real costs and benefits, and what changes are necessary to ensure its sustainability?

This lesson aims to equip students with the background knowledge and analytical tools to address these questions and evaluate claims in the media about Social Security, the federal program that ensures income security among retirees, those with disabilities, and survivors who have lost financial support from deceased family. Students will adopt the analytical lens of economics. They will approach the problem from a positive perspective (a perspective that focuses on describing things the way they are), rather than a normative one (a perspective that is strongly influenced by our ideas about the way we think things ought to be), to evaluate the costs and benefits of the program as objectively as possible. They will investigate claims in politics and the media about the current and future costs of the program, and determine what objective evidence is necessary to weigh those claims and predict the consequences of proposed reforms.

There is a wide range of thinking on this issue. Some believe any guaranteed income security provides a disincentive to work, to be more productive, or to save and invest one’s own income. Others believe it is a moral obligation for a society to provide for its neediest citizens, and emphasize that recipients paid into the system for many years; Social Security is akin to an insurance program, rather than a welfare program. Providing a basic level of income also eases exit from the workforce, makes the economy more adaptable as retirees leaving the workforce open up jobs for younger workers, ensures a basic standard of living for those who no longer work, and generates economic activity through spending the money received as a benefit.

These beliefs are often rooted in ideological views of what the proper role of government should be in relation to the individual. This lesson does not directly address these convictions, but rather focuses on using the tools of economics to weigh objective evidence about costs and benefits of the Social Security program itself, at present and in the future. Students may hold a wide range of personal opinions about this and any government program, but should be equipped to “fact check” any politician or media figure making claims about these programs.

Learning Objectives


  • The retirement of the baby boom generation changes the ratio of workers to retirees so that, by about 2034, Social Security will need to either (a) make adjustments to revenue (e.g., increase taxes) or (b) reduce benefits.
  • An informed decision about funding Social Security will require an accurate tabulation of the costs and benefits of the program as well as clear criteria for determining when those benefits are justified by the costs.


  • Analyze graphs, tables, and charts.
  • Critique the sources of data and the analytic frameworks on which they are based.
  • Formulate a position or course of action on an issue.


Day 1 of 2


Present students with the cartoon “Retire No More” (Resource 1). Give students 5 minutes to look over the cartoon and note observations. If they are stuck or confused, prompt them with the following:

  • What terms and images have you seen before? In what context?
    [Have them define words they are familiar with, including retirement and Social Security.]
  • Make a list of terms with which you are unfamiliar.
    [This will likely include IRA and 401(k).]
  • Describe how the people in the cartoon may be feeling, based on what they are saying, facial expressions, body language, and other context clues. Why do you think they feel this way?
    [Students will probably realize that the two people in the cartoon, although not yet elderly, are afraid they won’t have enough money in the future to retire. Students may need help understanding that “a thing of the past” refers to the fact that the recession has reduced the size of the couple’s retirement savings and that they are reading in the news that Social Security, the government-administered pension plan, is the subject of controversy and may raise the age at which the couple would be eligible for benefits.]

Image Annotation Tool for Retire No More Cartoon

Online Extension: Students may use CEE’s Image Annotation Tool to comment upon the cartoon. Encourage students to add a caption, thought and/or speech bubbles, and clip art stickers to reinforce the meaning of the cartoon. As an added challenge, have students use these tools to alter the meaning of the cartoon, presenting a perspective that differs from that of the cartoonist.

After students have noted observations and made a list of things they are familiar with and unfamiliar with in the cartoon, lead a discussion about the cartoon’s message, the issue it identifies, and why the issue is important. Use the following prompts if these points have not emerged during the discussion:

  • What do you know about retirement? Do you have any family members who are retired or plan to retire soon? Why do you think someone might feel anxious about retiring?
    [Students may respond that people are concerned that, without income, their savings will not be sufficient to cover their expenses, including large medical bills, for the length of their lives.]
  • What do you know about Social Security?
    [Students may remember some details from U.S. history or civics, or may only know that they have a Social Security number.]

Inform students that IRAs and 401(k)s are private accounts that people can use to save their own money for retirement. They are like Social Security, but there is an individual risk of losing that money, whereas Social Security is meant to be insured by the government.

Using the material in the introduction to this lesson and in the “Overview of Social Security” included with this packet, provide students with a mini-lesson on the program. At the close of the lesson, ask students if this adds to their understanding of the couple’s dilemma.

Finally, discuss with students why income security during retirement is so risky and so important, even if they will not retire for 40–50 years. They may note that they have older family members who might need support, that people still need income even when they are no longer working, and that it is uncertain how long someone will live after that person retires, so he or she does not know for sure how much money they must save. Inform students this lesson affects them because it may relate to their family (for instance, they may need to provide some financial support for aging parents), they must make choices about Social Security as voters and taxpayers, they too will retire someday, and they have the best chance of being secure in their retirement if they begin planning early.

What Are the Costs and Benefits? Looking Through the Lens of Cartoons

The next phase in addressing the essential dilemma is exploring the benefits of Social Security and the way it reflects the value our nation places on guaranteeing income security. In addition, the lesson confronts some of the costs of the program that, critics argue, over the long haul make it unsustainable in its present form without contributing to the national debt and federal budget deficit. Baby boomers are retiring, which means the relative size of the workforce is shrinking because birthrates dropped after the baby boom ended (approximately 1964). In addition, boomers are living longer than previous generations. Although Social Security has an accumulated surplus, the program is currently in a cash-flow deficit. This cash-flow deficit has been exacerbated by the economic downturn. Even with a recovery, however, the cash-flow deficit will continue to grow over time. Before the accumulated surplus in the trust fund has been spent (now estimated to be by 2034), policymakers will have to raise taxes or reduce benefits, or both, to make the program sustainable.

Distribute copies of two political cartoons (Resource 2) and, without explanation or introduction, ask students to study them for a few minutes and be ready to tell you what they notice.

After students have had several minutes with the cartoons, ask them to share their reactions. As the students share, listen for distinctly different views of the cartoons. This is an opportunity to send students back to the “text” to explain their interpretations. After close reading, students should be ready to compare the two cartoonists’ points of view, citing key words and images. If students need a more directed discussion to understand the cartoons, use the following prompts:

  • In the first cartoon, by Benjamin Hummel, what costs do the stones on the Middle Class Tax Payer represent?
    [The stones represent government expenditures that must be supported by tax revenues.]
  • According to Hummel, what benefit is Uncle Sam offering to the Middle Class Tax Payer? Does Uncle Sam assume this is a fair exchange? What is the reaction of the Middle Class Tax Payer?
    [Uncle Sam is offering a very small token or coin to represent the taxpayer’s benefit or “return” on what they are paying. His facial expression implies that he knows the exchange is not fair. The taxpayer appears overwhelmed and frazzled.]
  • What is the message of the first cartoon? Does Hummel support the programs piled on the taxpayer’s back and/or believe the exchange is fair?
    [The message is that a disproportionate share of the burden for supporting government programs falls on the shoulders of middle-class taxpayers, and they do not receive enough benefits in return.]
  • The second cartoon is by Rob Tornoe. What comparison is Tornoe making between Social Security and Congressional benefits?
    [Tornoe makes an ironic comparison between the very generous benefits Congressional members receive and the much smaller Social Security benefits working Americans have earned but are in danger of losing under Congressionally proposed plans to cut the budget.]
  • What response do you think Tornoe would have to Hummel’s cartoon?
    [Tornoe would say Hummel understates the importance of Social Security benefits to middle-class taxpayers and that there are other areas of government spending that are more wasteful and should be cut before Social Security.]

Is the Current System Sustainable? Examining Costs and Benefits

In this section, students will examine data to explore the costs (including future debt) and benefits of Social Security. Looked at in relation to one another, the charts and graphs found in “Costs and Benefits: Visualizations” (Resource 3) address this question. Separate students into pairs and distribute copies of all five charts to each pair. Depending on time and the comfort level of students in independently analyzing graphs, the first one or two charts can be analyzed together as an entire class to model the activity first. You may also choose to distribute “Perspectives on the Value of Social Security” (Resource 4) to some or all pairs of students, depending on their reading level and the level of background knowledge of the class.

Ask students to examine these documents and create a table summarizing the current benefits and costs of Social Security. Students should first do this task on their own and then compare their observations and inferences about costs and benefits with their partner. As they compare notes, they should clear up areas of confusion and come to agreement on their conclusions. They should also use what they know about Social Security from the mini-lesson and the prior discussion of the political cartoons to address the following questions:

  • What does each chart show?
    [Student responses should approximate the information for the teacher included in Resource 3.]
  • Is it significant that the collection has one chart on the benefits of Social Security (Chart 1) and four related to the costs (Charts 2, 3, 4, and 5)?
    [If students conclude that the ratio of four charts to one means that the costs outweigh the benefits, ask them to look again. They might see that the information about the budget and projected costs is more complicated to present.]
  • Is the information credible? (What is the source? What is the evidence? In what ways might it be skewed?)
    [Students might notice all of the data have been gathered by the government, but that although Chart 1 is based on data from the U.S. census, the chart itself was created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Chart 3 is based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, but also was created by the CBPP. They might conclude that they want to know more about the CBPP.]
  • Why is this evidence important—what does it add to the debate about Social Security?
    [Student answers will vary, but they might note that there is a real problem when the long-term prospects for balancing the budget seem to be at odds with protecting 33% of seniors from poverty.]

If these points do not emerge, ask students:

  • What are the benefits of Social Security?
    [Student answers should draw on the work they’ve done so far and the data in Charts 1–5. They should understand that, all else being equal, Social Security appears to keep over a third of retirees from falling into poverty.]
  • Which are the largest areas of government spending? Do these areas seem to be increasing or decreasing in the future?
    [Student answers should draw on the work they’ve done so far and the data in Charts 1–5. They should understand that currently, the largest areas of government spending are Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This chart is also an opportunity to make the distinction between discretionary and mandatory spending.]
  • What is the cost of Social Security?
    [Social Security is now the equivalent of 24% of the federal budget.]
  • How are the costs of Social Security paid for?
    [From the “Overview of Social Security”: Social Security costs are paid for largely by a dedicated Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) 12.4% payroll tax on most workers’ wages (6.2% paid by the worker and 6.2% paid by their employer).]
  • Do you see any evidence that trends may change in the future? Why?
    [From the “Overview of Social Security” and the ratio of workers to retirees graphic in Resource 3: Social Security taxes that are collected from current workers and their employers are used to pay benefits to current retirees. Because, beginning now, there is a 20-year “bubble” (a sudden increase) in the number of people retiring, without changes to the program there will not be enough workers to fully fund retiree pensions beyond 2034.]

Optional Homework

Students can interview parents and neighbors about their views of the benefits and costs of Social Security. They can then write up a summary or create a chart to summarize their findings. They also may want to add their initial opinions at the end of the summary.

Day 2 of 2

Assessing Sustainability and Investigating Reforms: Review and Discussion

Open by reviewing with students the current benefits and costs of the Social Security program. Inform students that, although there is a wide range of opinions as to whether the benefits justify the costs today, much of the political debate is centered on how the benefits and costs will change in the future. Be sure to clarify that, for the purposes of this analysis, the word “benefit” refers to the good things Social Security provides for individuals and for society, not the actual monthly payment to beneficiaries.

Ask students to infer, based on the discussions, cartoons, charts, and readings from Day 1, how the benefits and costs may change over time.
[Student responses may include that the number of retirees relative to workers will increase, and that the current recession has led to a decrease in tax revenue, eventually requiring additional revenue from taxes, or there may have to be cuts in benefits.]

Inform students that opinions vary widely as to how urgent and serious the threat to Social Security is. Nonetheless, students should be prepared as voters to decide which level of benefits seems most suitable to them and what trade-offs are necessary to maintain that level, now and in the future.

Distribute “Predictions and Claims” (Resource 5) to pairs of students. This resource includes recent claims and predictions by political leaders and commentators about the future of Social Security. Tell students that they will not have enough time or information to actually determine the truthfulness of these claims, but that they should weigh the predictions against what they already know about Social Security to determine what questions they would ask and what additional evidence they would seek if they were reporters covering the political debate on this issue. They should also begin to think about whether reforms to the program are necessary and, if so, what areas should be reformed, taking into account what they have learned about the program and its costs and benefits in the present day. Remind students that they should first do this task on their own and then compare their analyses with their partner. As they compare notes, they should clear up areas of confusion. They need not agree on whether reforms to Social Security are necessary, but they should be clear on why they disagree.

Questions, Evidence, and Criteria to Evaluate Reform Proposals

Based on the analysis of quotes students received as reporters (Resource 5) and the discussion of the costs and benefits of Social Security in Day 1, lead a class discussion on the following crucial questions:

  • Is Social Security in jeopardy? If there is a problem, how urgent is it?
  • What are the benefits of Social Security? Are they worth preserving?
  • Why is there a range of opinions about the sustainability of Social Security?

Student opinions will likely vary widely on these issues, and there are no clear right or wrong answers. Many of these questions are normative in nature, meaning they reflect differing values, assumptions, and perspectives on the way things ought to be. Direct students to think economically, however, about the positive elements of the questions, meaning the claims that are more scientific or objective in nature and can be tested using evidence.

Examples of a normative statement:

  • Social Security is consuming an excessive and ever-growing portion of the federal budget. The entire program is a fraud amounting to little more than intergenerational theft.
  • Social Security didn’t cause the debt, so why should we sacrifice to reduce the debt!?

Example of a positive statement:

  • The Social Security trust fund is no longer running a surplus and will therefore need to begin cashing in on Treasury bonds it has bought over the years. This may put a strain on other areas of the federal budget, but the program itself is projected to have enough cash and assets to fully pay its obligations for the next 20 years.

The first two statements might not be incorrect, but they reflect a point of view. Most importantly, they cannot be tested for accuracy. The second statement is one that could be checked for accuracy.

With this lens in mind, students should generate a list of questions they would ask any politician with a proposal to reform Social Security, evidence they would seek to economically evaluate the consequences of the plan, and criteria by which they would judge the plan. If students are having trouble doing this in a general, abstract way, you may wish to print and distribute a list of reforms proposed by AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) at https://www.aarp.org/work/social-security/info-05-2012/future-of-social-security-proposals.html .


Review students’ lists of questions and evidence. Discuss with students whether the questions they ask and evidence they seek would address the essential dilemma of this lesson, and how their perspective on Social Security may have changed over the course of the lesson.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards2
D2.Eco.7.9-12. Use benefits and costs to evaluate the effectiveness of government policies to improve market outcomes.
D2.Eco.8.9-12. Describe the possible consequences, both intended and unintended, of government policies to improve market outcomes.



Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2015). Social Security helps millions of elderly Americans. Retrieved from https://www.cbpp.org/blog/social-security-helps-millions-of-elderly-americans

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2016, March 4). Policy basics: Where do our federal tax dollars go?, p. 2. Retrieved from https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/4-14-08tax.pdf

Dorn, J. (2010, August 20). The real costs of Social Security: Red ink, instability, loss of choice. Investor’s Business Daily. Retrieved from https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/real-costs-social-security

Hummel, B. (2010, January 16). The high cost of it all. Retrieved from http://www.politixcartoons.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/the-high-cost-of-it-all.jpg

Kotlikoff, L. (2014, April 7). America’s Ponzi scheme: Why Social Security needs to retire. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/americas-ponzi-scheme-why-social-security-needs-to-retire

National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. (2016, April 4). The retirement security gap between America’s rich and poor continues to grow. Retrieved from http://www.ncpssm.org/PressRoom/NewsReleases/Release/ArticleID/1487/The-Retirement-Security-Gap-Between-America%E2%80%99s-Rich-and-Poor-Continues-to-Grow

New York Times. (2015, October 28). Transcript: Republican presidential debate [Chris Christie]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/us/politics/transcript-republican-presidential-debate.html?_r=0

Parker, J. (2005, June 23). Retire no more. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from http://www.caglecartoons.com/viewimage.asp?ID={3C1F31AC-97D1-497C-8798-303075A47F8B}

Starr, P. (2005, February). Why we need Social Security. The American Prospect. Retrieved from https://www.princeton.edu/~starr/articles/articles05/Starr-SocSec-2-05.htm

U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2008). Current trends are not sustainable [Chart]. A citizen’s guide to the 2008 financial report of the United States government: The federal government’s financial health, (p. 7). Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/financial_pdfs/citizensguide2008.pdf

U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2008, January 17). Social Security and Medicare’s hospital insurance trust funds face cash deficits [Chart]. U.S. financial condition and fiscal future briefing, (p. 10). Retrieved from https://www.gao.gov/assets/80/77449.pdf

Warren, E. (2015, January 6). Facebook post. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/senatorelizabethwarren/posts/403037209858778

Extension Activity

Have students design a concept map of the information provided in this lesson. It should show at least three main ideas from across the two-day lesson, as well as any interconnections.