Social Security, Governance, and the National Debt


What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?


  • 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? Do the competing views on the program simply reflect different assessments of the cost of the program, or do they also reflect different visions of what kind of country we are and what role we want the federal government to play in our lives?

Social Security is a federally funded program that provides a lifetime of retirement income to people over the age of 62 who have paid into the system through payroll taxes for at least 10 years. From the time that Social Security was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on August 14, 1935, the program has raised questions about the proper balance between individual and government (collective) responsibilities. Today, as in 1935, there are many opinions about whether the federal government should administer a retirement fund. Some believe this is not the proper role for the federal government, and that individuals must arrange for their own retirement. Others believe that the federal government has the right and the duty to require individuals and their employers to participate in a program that will ensure a minimum level of income to all retired people. Many believe that both individuals and the government have roles to play.

The debate about Social Security is about more than taxes and government spending. Ultimately, this debate gets to the core of questions about the kind of country we are and the kind of country we want to be. Are we a country of individuals who prioritize the value of free choice over shared responsibility, comfortable with the fact that not everyone will be best served by governance that reflects that priority? Or are we a country that prioritizes the value of community and shared responsibility over free choice, comfortable that some individual autonomy may be sacrificed?

In this lesson, students will analyze commentaries from multiple points of view and learn to identify the role each writer or cartoonist believes the federal government should play in the lives of its citizens and how that belief influences their view of Social Security. This lesson is closely related to the economics lesson “Social Security and the National Debt.” The two lessons can be used in conjunction to help students understand the relationship between issues of governance and their effect on the federal deficit and debt.

Learning Objectives


  • In addition to concerns about balancing the budget, competing points of view on Social Security often reflect differing beliefs about the role the federal government should play in our lives.


  • Analyze graphs, tables, and charts.
  • Examine sources for information and interpretations, and for cases where they corroborate, complement, or contradict each other.


DAY 1 OF 2


Begin by presenting students with the graph “Elderly Poverty and Social Security Expenditures over Time” from the National Bureau of Economic Research (Resource 1). Ask students to work in small groups to analyze the graph and explain its data in their own words. If students have trouble understanding the graph, use the following questions to guide their analysis:

  • What information does the graph provide?
    [The graph depicts changes in the poverty rate of the elderly and Social Security expenditures between 1967 and 2000.]
  • Describe the relationship between the two lines.
    [The lines are moving in opposite directions. The poverty rate for the elderly has generally declined since 1967, whereas Social Security expenditures have generally increased since 1967.]
  • From the information provided in this graph, what can we infer about Social Security expenditures and the poverty rate among the elderly?
    [A decrease in poverty among the elderly is correlated with increased spending on Social Security.]
  • From the information provided in this graph, what do you hypothesize an extension of the graph to 2016 would look like? Why?
    [Students may hypothesize that these trends have likely continued, because the implementation of the Social Security program has not changed significantly since 2000, in spite of many efforts by political leaders to do so. Other hypotheses may include the possibility of an increase in the poverty rate among the elderly from 2008 onward due to the recession or other general economic factors.]

Ask students what they know about Social Security. Use the material in the introduction to this lesson, and in the “Overview of Social Security” included with this packet (and available online), to provide students with a mini-lesson that covers gaps in their understanding of the program. In particular, explain the impact the retirement of the “baby boomers” (the increased number of babies born in the 20 years following World War II) will have on the future of Social Security. This is explained in the section of the Overview entitled “Changing Ratios.” After the mini-lesson, ask students what more they can now say about the graph in Resource 1; in particular, what significance it has in light of what they now know about the long-term challenge of sustaining Social Security.
[Students may say that, in light of the effect Social Security appears to have had on poverty among the elderly, cutbacks in the program might present a terrible dilemma. Help students understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and encourage multiple answers on how that could be reflected with new information from the mini-lesson.]

Ask students to consider why the country might not simply use money from the general fund to supplement the Social Security trust fund when, 20 years from now, the money begins to run out and, at the current level of funding, retirees can no longer receive their full pensions.
[Students may suggest that money would have to come from somewhere. Help students recognize that the source of this money is not unlimited, and that money spent on Social Security cannot be spent in other areas like education or defense. Explain to students that deciding how, as a nation, to allocate our limited resources is a difficult decision that often involves choosing among programs we value or using taxes to raise more revenue. Tell students that they will be investigating this dilemma throughout the course of this lesson.]


Elderly Poverty and Social Security Expenditures Over Time

As students learned in the introductory discussion, the rising number of retirees presents our country with a critical dilemma. With the prospect of a long-term shortfall in full funding for a government program many have come to take for granted, we must address the question of what responsibility we (the government) have for ensuring the elderly a secure and stable standard of living, and at what cost.

Present students with the cartoon “Social Security Benefits Increase” (Resource 2) and ask them to consider its meaning. After students have studied the cartoon for several minutes, ask what they notice, drawing them out on the detail of what they see. If students jump to an interpretation of the cartoon, ask them for the basis of the interpretation and ask other students if they agree or disagree.

If students are having difficulty getting into the cartoon, ask them more directed questions, such as:

  • Who are the individuals in the cartoon?
    [They are retirees; specifically, elderly Americans dependent on Social Security.]
  • Why is the man ready to “celebrate”?
    [Social Security recipients are scheduled to get a 3.5% increase in benefits (see the paper the woman is reading at the table).]
  • What point is this artist making about Social Security?
    [The artist is pointing out that the increase is not enough to maintain a decent standard of living. The retirees are wearing coats and it’s cold enough to see their breath. They are going to turn the heat up to 62 degrees (still very low) and plan to eat cat food.]

Ask students if they believe the public would generally agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, and support the range of points of view students express. Tell students that they will revisit this cartoon at the end of the lesson to see if their understandings have changed.

Privatization of Social Security

One suggestion that has been presented to reform Social Security is to privatize it; that is, to allow individuals to take Social Security withdrawals and invest the money themselves, within parameters set by the federal government. President Bush attempted to do this in 2005 and failed to get the suggestion through Congress. However, there are groups that still think this is an attractive option.

In pairs or small groups, have students brainstorm the pros and cons of allowing people to invest their own Social Security funds. Encourage them to consider such things as how the stock market works, what federal parameters might need to be in place, and how it would change the way Social Security is now funded. Have students share their pros and cons with the class.

Tell students they will use this information to help guide them in answering the essential dilemma of the lesson.

Presidential Viewpoints on Social Security

Divide students into groups and distribute “Presidential Viewpoints on Social Security” (Resource 3). Explain to students that the readings they just received relate to the essential dilemma of this lesson, but that each represents a somewhat different point of view. Inform students that they will use these statements to summarize the different beliefs about Social Security. Students should reference these statements as they work with their group to respond to the handout “Individual Responsibility, Social Responsibility, and Social Security” (Resource 4). As the students work, move from group to group, answering questions and clarifying points of confusion. The Teacher’s Guide section of Resource  4 anticipates the probable range of student answers.

DAY 2 OF 2

Individual Responsibility, Social Responsibility, and Social Security

Ask students to review the handout “Individual Responsibility, Social Responsibility, and Social Security” that they examined yesterday, and clarify any points of confusion within the group. When each group is comfortable with their answers, ask for volunteers to share an answer with the class. Write students’ answers on the board as they respond, and ask other groups to add to their classmates’ answers as you proceed through the handout. After each question, clarify any misconceptions and reinforce the recurring themes from the students’ explanations. 

Writing Exercise: Respond to the Essential Dilemma

To help students begin to develop their own opinions on this subject, ask them to do a “5-minute write” in response to the essential dilemma of this lesson: What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?

When students have finished writing, divide them into small groups and ask them to share what they wrote with their classmates. Explain to students that this is not a debate; rather, it is a way for students to learn about the opinions of their fellow classmates and further develop their own opinions on this topic. After each student has shared her or his opinion, the groups should discuss the ideas presented, guided by the following questions:

  • What ideas did your group raise about the role of government in ensuring the elderly a secure and stable standard of living? What reasons were provided in support of these ideas?
    [Students’ answers could include discussion of the “intergenerational commitment” discussed by President Barack Obama, in which citizens are expected to provide for the elderly and, in turn, expect to be provided for when they retire; or, students could discuss President George W. Bush’s concept that citizens should provide for their own retirement through individual accounts.]
  • After hearing your classmates’ arguments, were you persuaded to modify your own opinions? Why or why not? Where do points of compromise exist among the various ideas shared in your group?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but should focus on commonalities and areas in which compromise could be reached among their potentially disparate ideas.]
  • What additional information would you need to make an informed decision about the role you believe the federal government should play in ensuring the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?
    [Students’ answers might include discussion about how much money is currently allocated for Social Security spending, what percentage of the federal budget that money represents, and how those numbers are expected to change in the coming years. They might also want to know what other demands there are on the money. Some students might want to know how other countries approach the challenge of pension plans for the elderly and if they are more or less successful.]

After each group has discussed their ideas, ask for volunteers to summarize their deliberation for the rest of the class. Ask other groups if their experiences were similar or different, and discuss their responses with the class. Conclude this part of the activity by asking students to share what additional information they would need to make a more informed decision about the essential dilemma of this lesson. (Note: Students’ answers to this question could point to opportunities for future lessons on this topic.)


When students have completed their discussion of the options, turn their attention back to the cartoon they examined at the beginning of the lesson and ask them to revisit their comments. Lead students in a brief discussion guided by the following questions:

  • Why is the man depicted in the cartoon “celebrating” the increase in Social Security benefits?
  • Should the federal government make sure he has a secure and stable standard of living?

Ask students to write a 250-word essay addressing the essential dilemma: What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living? Their work should make use of the statements they read in the handouts and incorporate the ideas developed in their discussion with their classmates.



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.9-10.6. Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards
D2.Civ.5.9-12. Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
D2.Civ.13.9-12. Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

NCSS’s National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
6.Power, Authority, and Governance. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government
I.A.What Are Civic Life, Politics, and Government? Why are government and politics necessary? What purposes should government serve?
II.B. and D.What Are the Foundations of the American Political System? What are the distinctive characteristics of American society? What values and principles are basic to American constitutional democracy?
III.B. and E.How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy? How is the national government organized and what does it do? How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?
V.B.What Are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy? What are the rights of citizens?


Margulies, J. (2011, October 19). Social Security benefits increase. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2004). Elderly poverty and Social Security expenditures over time [Chart]. Retrieved from

Social Security Online. (2011). Special collections: Presidential statements. Retrieved from