Duncan Black’s neighbors probably can’t hear him tapping away on his laptop in his Philadelphia row house, but he has been doing his best to become Townsend’s modern heir. An economist and former college professor, Black—who goes by the pseudonym “Atrios” online—is one of America’s most popular political bloggers; his typical output consists of short, snarky quips on the news from a liberal perspective. But in late 2012 he embarked on a sustained crusade, on his blog and in a series of columns for USA Today, to inject a single idea into America’s policy discourse: “We need an across-the-board increase in Social Security retirement benefits of 20 percent or more,” he declared in the opening of a column for USA Today. “We need it to happen right now.”
The proposal was not exactly attuned to the political winds in Washington. Indeed, for anyone inclined to think in terms of counting potential votes in Congress—especially this Congress—the idea of expanding Social Security is the epitome of a political non-starter. Black’s proposal was attuned, however, to a mounting pile of research and demographic data that describes a gathering disaster. The famously large baby boom generation is heading into retirement. Thanks to decades of stagnant wages and the asset collapse of the Great Recession, more than half of American working-class households are at risk of being unable to sustain their standard of living past retirement. To put it even more starkly, according to research by the economists Joelle Saad-Lessler and Teresa Ghilarducci, 49 percent of middle-class workers are on track to be “poor or near poor” after they retire.
There is very little safety net left to break this fall. The labor market for older workers is bleak. Private pensions are largely a thing of the past. Private savings are so far gone that some 25 percent of households with 401(k) and other retirement plans have raided them early to cover expenses, and a growing number of Americans over age 50 find themselves accumulating, not settling, debt. On the whole, 401(k)s have proved a “disaster,” as Black puts it, one that has enriched the financial sector but lashed the country’s retirement security to a volatile stock market—and left 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 with less than $30,000 in their accounts.
What’s left? Social Security. Though it was never meant to be a national retirement system all by itself, that’s increasingly what it has become. For Americans over age 65 in the bottom half of the income distribution, Social Security makes up at least 80 percent of retirement income.
And yet, when Social Security has been in the news in recent years, it has usually been because someone wants to cut it. With Republicans in Congress ever more devoted to dismantling government, and the Congressional left doing everything it can just to fight the erosion of social programs, the center in American politics has increasingly come to be defined by deficit scolds preaching the “hard choices” of austerity. And the deficit reduction industry, a network of people in both parties who tend to enjoy favorable media attention for being “serious minded,” has long painted Social Security cuts as responsible fiscal policy—never mind that the program is funded outside the budget and does not add to the deficit.