As the country continues to debate Social Security reform, I wanted to share the details of an interesting book that I recently read on the subject - The Battle for Social Security: From FDR's Vision To Bush's Gamble. Although I will begin by pointing out that this book was written in 2005, so there have been many developments and changes since. Nevertheless it provides the reader with a good overview of the makings of Social Security and its development up until reasonably recently.
The Battle for Social Security (Altman, 2005) provides the reader with a comprehensive overview of the history of this very significant government program. Beginning with its inception and the political, social and economic environment that made Social Security’s creation possible, the author guides you through every challenge, review and amendment that has occurred since. Published in 2005, the section of the book focusing on history ends with George W. Bush and his attempts to create a system of private investment accounts for workers. Altman’s writing ends with a plan for the future, created by both herself and a Social Security veteran since 1939, Robert M. Ball. This strategy outlines three key changes that have been suggested to overcome the risk of future Social Security trust fund deficits: appropriating Estate Tax revenues, returning the taxable wage base to 90% of earned income, and increasing the diversity of fund investments.
A major theme throughout emphasizes that although a very vocal opposition has always existed, most Americans support Social Security. Altman states, “Social Security has a reputation of political invulnerability because it embodies fundamental American values that have overwhelming support” (p. 315). What I found fascinating was that in spite of changing political parties since the 1930’s, George W. Bush was the only President to attempt to significantly downsize Social Security. I thought that opposition to the program was stronger, however seeing details laid out over the course of decades, one can see that it is simply a small, albeit powerful, minority. The lack of support for changes to fundamentals of Social Security was clearly evidenced by the quick death of Bush’s attempted amendments, although this occurred slightly after this book was written. As President Eisenhower said in a letter to his brother “there is a tiny splinter group… that believes you can [abolish Social Security]” (p. 182).
It is noteworthy that the book outlines situations where the Social Security trust fund previously neared depletion, but in each instance, the government was able to avert crisis. “In the 1975 report, the trustees forecast that the funds would be exhausted by 1979” (p. 216) and “the trustees projected that the trust funds would be exhausted, unable to pay benefits on time, starting in 1983” (p. 227). It was startling to discover that in the absence of Social Security, the number of elderly today who would be below the poverty line is not significantly different to the statistics from before Social Security’s enactment. This underscores the need to find funds to ensure the continuation of the program and also to deal with any impending issues without changes to benefit amounts.
The author clearly has an opinion on the subject of Social Security, which I felt was both positive and negative. This could be a very appealing introductory level piece of work, however those new to a topic may be more likely to benefit from an unbiased piece of work. On the other hand, I think it is Altman’s passion and knowledge of the topic that makes this an accessible and enjoyable read and one would not get that from a book without any sentiment.
This book makes a significant contribution to the field of Social Security study, by providing a highly comprehensive and easy to follow historical guide, as well as a reasoned plan for the future. However it could be useful to have an updated publication, as the plan is not necessarily still viable. Estate Taxes were not abolished in 2010, as was predicted, but deductions and payment rates were changed. As a third of the Altman/Ball plan was to appropriate reinstated Estate Tax revenue to the Social Security fund, the fact that it was never abolished is highly relevant. To obtain this revenue now, it would need to be diverted from whatever purpose it serves as part of the General Fund. This also goes against the notion of keeping the Social Security fund and General Fund separate.
The proportion of the book dedicated to the history of the program versus the current day situation and plans for the future was not quite what I hoped for. By no means should the history portion have been any shorter, my only criticism on this subject is that the author introduced too many individuals by name and sometimes it was difficult to keep track. However, it somehow felt like the book was given up on towards the end. Although the author outlines one future plan, an analysis of other solutions, and why they were not chosen, would have been helpful. For this reason I would not recommend it as an isolated title for someone wanting to learn about Social Security, but definitely a good starting point for research.
Altman, Nancy J. (2005). The Battle for Social Security: From FDR's Vision To Bush's Gamble. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, inc.