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Importance of the Social Safety Net

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
March 31, 2023

During a recent trip abroad I caught a news story on CNN about rioting in France due to the government moving to change the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old and it got me thinking about how public administrators are involved in those decisions here in the United States. Similar to France, the United States has a retirement pension program called Social Security, that is designed to replace a percentage of earned income after retirement. An important factor of these pensions is they rely heavily on current wage earners to pay in to the pension system, which then supports those currently retired and drawing from the account. France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, has decided to move forward with the increase in retirement age to protect the pension system from future deficit. This story has many parallels with our own retirement system here in the United States, in that Social Security is potentially at risk of deficit due to the large number of baby boomers that are in stages of retirement in contrast to the number of actively employed citizens paying in to the social security administration pension.

Public administrators engaged in public policy are charged with the responsibility of monitoring our fiscal future and ensuring citizens aging toward retirement will have access to the Social Security retirement network. Established in 1935, Social Security is an insurance program that provides income to retired workers, and was created in response to the Great Depression and its resulting poverty and hardship on Americans. Since its creation, the Social Security program has undergone multiple amendments and expansions to include more classes of workers and make adjustments to accommodate future population changes. As leaders in our communities it is our responsibility to manage the financial future of all citizens and we can do this by investing in our community through social support programs and sustained funding for retirement for all workers. For many workers in the United States, Social Security is commonly the only source of retirement income, and with the retirement age currently at 65-67 years old, and people living much longer, it can only be expected that this source will one day run out.

When the Social Security Act was put into practice the average life expectancy was about 62 years old and today’s average is about 76 years old; the full retirement age is 65-67 years old. In the early 1980’s Congress recognized that people live longer, fuller lives and passed a law to gradually raise the age of retirement to accommodate these changes over time. You could say that adjusting the retirement age to align with overall health and viability of workers makes sense, because the more people leaving employment means less funding going in to the pot. I would not be surprised if the age of retirement is one day raised in the United States, and while I personally wouldn’t want to have to work longer than necessary, I also see the value in adding to the social safety net for as long as possible. France’s President has clearly recognized the importance of raising the age of retirement to avoid any future financial distress, and it’s possible we could learn from this type of reform for the future economic stability of our own citizenship.

Aside from retirement benefits, public administrators also have responsibility to monitor the public health and welfare of our constituents. As the cost of living and healthcare increases, the drain on government funding will also increase. Making adjustments to the tax system now will potentially stabilize our support systems in the future. Many Americans struggle with disabilities and access to equitable healthcare, which may have a direct impact on their ability to work longer toward retirement which also puts a strain on the public benefits system. Defining and honing the systems that support the overall well being of our communities is important to a successful future for our working populations. Building a framework to recognize when and how frequently we revisit public policy around retirement, healthcare and costs of living will help us to better understand the barriers to providing equitable access to programs such as Social Security and social safety nets designed to best support our communities.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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