We Know You Hear Us, But Are You Really Listening to Us on Social Security?

At times, watching Congress debate some of the top issues -- the future of Social Security, for example -- is like seeing reruns of that old TV series, Father Knows Best. In the series, "Father" was insurance salesman Jim Anderson (played by Robert Young), a wise figure who seemed to have all the answers. His kids had a problem with friends, or school, or finances? Good old Dad knew what to do. Wife wasn't sure about something? Hubby would dispense his wisdom and all would be well.

But not always. Because a lot of the time, Father might have been hearing his family members, but he wasn't really listening. His solutions often didn't address the real issue at hand.

So it is with Congress today. Like Jim Anderson, our representatives may hear what we have to say, the problem is, they're not really listening. The matter of Social Security is a case in point.

A new survey released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) (Strengthening Social Security: What Do Americans Want?) found that eight in 10 Americans agree Social Security is critical to preserve for future generations. The support is unified across party and generational divides.

Using trade-off analysis, the survey found seven in 10 participants favored minor changes that would shore up Social Security's projected long-term financing gap by 115 percent. They support gradually eliminating the cap on earnings, gradually raising the Social Security tax on workers and employers, increasing the cost of living adjustment (COLA) and raising Social Security's minimum benefit. It's a package the American people think is both sensible and doable.

Yet with Social Security policymakers sometimes find it hard to truly listen to a view that most of their constituents share. As NASI points out in its new study, "Social Security is the foundation for almost all Americans. While most monthly benefits are modest -- about $1,260 on average... the program keeps more than 21 million Americans out of poverty."

During the 1960s and '70s, Social Security not only kept people out of poverty, it kept young people in school.

In 1965, five years after Robert Young stepped out of his TV role, Congress voted to extend Social Security survivor and family benefits for children enrolled in college who had a disabled or deceased parent. In 1978, two-thirds of the students receiving the benefit lived in households below the poverty line. Social Security benefits made the difference in whether these students could continue their education.

In 1981, however, Congress did a turn-about, eliminating the student benefit. That decision has had a profoundly negative effect on the country, in terms of wage-earning potential. NASI's research ("A New Deal for Young Adults: Social Security Benefits for Post-Secondary School Students") found that after 1981, a third of high school students who would have continued on to trade school or a four-year college would have done so had the benefit still existed. When the benefit ceased to exist, so did their dreams of higher education.

Eliminating the student benefit has had long-term consequences. Today, on average, college graduates earn 61 percent more than high school graduates over the course of their lifetimes. Not only do high school graduates earn less, they pay less into the Social Security program, and get less out of it.

By reinstating the student benefit for children of deceased or disabled workers we could help more young people be more competitive in the global market. Equally important, with more young people earning higher wages, reinstatement of the benefit would more than pay for itself over time. Even Jim Anderson could agree with that.

Social Security has been part of the American social compact for more than 75 years. It's the third rail of American politics for good reason: It's one of the strongest and most reliable supports we can offer all Americans, now and in the future.

Like any large program, Social Security needs to be tweaked over time to reflect current economic realities. Today's realities are that we need Social Security, we need reinstatement of the student benefit, and we can ensure the program is here for our children and grandchildren with a few minor changes that a large majority of Americans agree with.

Congress: We know you hear us, but are you really listening?