Compassion Cannot Trump Math


Grand Forks Herald opinion editor Tom Dennis and I have developed something of a public back-and-forth over entitlements.  Last Sunday I responded to one of Dennis’ editorials in which he wrote about moral hazards.

“[A] key reason why so few people have nursing-home insurance is the fact that long-term care is available for “free” to people who qualify for Medicaid,” wrote Dennis.  He was pointing out that these sort of entitlements can create a moral hazard whereby citizens stop caring for themselves in favor of the government caring for them.

I agreed with Dennis, but wondered why he wouldn’t apply that sort of thinking to other areas of government like Social Security.  Today Dennis responds by arguing that Social Security, far from creating moral hazard, is a social imperative opposed only by those “in thrall to a dog-eat-dog libertarianism that holds very little mass appeal.”

As evidence, Dennis cites surveys of poverty among senior citizens taken by the states before the implementation of Social Security:

“Though there were no national measurements, in surveys taken between 1925 and 1932 in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, nearly half of elderly people lived on less than $25 per month, which survey administrators deemed ‘insufficient subsistence income,'”a Huffington Post report notes.

“An attempt to quantify elderly poverty in 1939, deep into the Depression, using census data, found the rate may have been close to 80 percent. Whatever the national numbers, by 1974. official elderly poverty had fallen below 15 percent, and by 1995, it had dropped to 10.”

And as a 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded, “Our analysis suggests that the growth in Social Security can indeed explain all of the decline in poverty over this period (1968-2001).”

Let’s see: Social Security and a modestly less robust capitalism, or no Social Security and a free-market juggernaut that leaves Calcutta-like casualties in its wake

The surveys referenced suggest that the income level among some seniors pre-Social Security was below subsistence level.  And yet, seniors subsisted.  Why do you suppose that is?  Likely because their families and communities cared for them.  Social conservatives often point out that the rise of the government entitlement/welfare state has marginalized the role family and private charity played in the lives of Americans.  Anyone looking at some of our nation’s nursing homes, where seniors are warehoused out of sight and out of mind can see evidence of that.

But I reject the premise that our only choice is between our entitlement status quo and hyperbolic claims of “Calcutta-like casualties.”  And attributing decline in poverty in America to Social Security alone seems shockingly myopic.

None of us wants to see our fellow citizens, senior citizens and otherwise, pushed into an impoverished existence, but is a universal defined-benefits pension really the only way to avoid such an outcome?  Given the mathematical reality of Social Security as it presently stands, not only is the program not our only solution, it’s not even a particularly good solution for modern Americans.

Dennis embraces compassion for seniors.  What about compassion for younger Americans who are getting the short end of a massive wealth redistribution from young to old?  What about this generation of Americans entering the workforce today who may never be able to build up the sort of savings needed to provide for themselves in retirement because the weight of America’s entitlement systems falls squarely on their shoulders?

Medicare and Social Security, our two largest entitlement problems, are on a path to insolvency and the only reforms the loudest proponents of these programs seem willing to embrace are reforms that take more from Americans to pay for the programs while giving them less.  And even those reforms will only kick the can down the road until another round of austerities and tax increases are required.

It’s one thing to be compassionate for those these programs help.  It’s quite another thing to ignore the math of these programs, and the realities those calculations represent for younger generations.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Roy_Bean

    The reason that Socialist Insecurity didn’t have a chance is that since the mid 1960s both parties have been raiding the “surplus” to finance spending that they otherwise couldn’t afford. In other words, those of us in our 60s today took an advance on our inheritance back then and now it’s gone. The working plan has been to ask our kids and grandkids to pick up the shortfall. It ain’t gonna work, and it shouldn’t. We need to fix this now. Full retirement needs to be at least 70 and early retirement needs to be at least 67 and it needs to change in 2013. My question for people who don’t like it is why didn’t you complain in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s?

    • Bat One

      Roy, Your comment is too restrained. LBJ and a Democrat-controlled Congress, at his behest, passed unified budgeting in much the same manner that Obama rammed through his so-called “stimulus” and “healthcare reform” bills. Saying that “those of us in our 60s took an advance on our inheritance” is certainly evocative, but not strictly accurate. Nor have our kids and grandkids been “asked” to pick up the shortfall – a shortfall that some of us have seen coming, and complained about – loudly – for decades.

      • Roy_Bean

        Since we seem to live in a country where the majority rules, it seems that the majority spent this money for all of us. While you and I and a minority of the voters would rather not have spent the money, the money has been spent. It’s gone. We are now 16 trillion in debt and I see no hope of paying it back before I retire so I guess it will be left to my kids and grand kids. My point is that the can has reached the end of the road, it can’t be kicked any farther.

  • toomuchguvmint

    The zirp policy sure doesn’t add any security to the income of senior citizens. Government policies that drive up the cost of food (ethanol mandates) and drive up the cost of energy (green energy mandates) are placing more hardships in the lives of senior citizens as well.

  • tony_o2

    Reform, yes. Repeal, no. That’s the bottom line with Americans’ attitude
    toward entitlements; and the sooner Republicans accept it, the sooner
    they’ll take occupancy of the Oval Office.

    And whenever a Republican talks about reform, the left goes straight to their lying accusations that the right wants to repeal all entitlements and throw everyone onto the street. It’s what happened when Bush talked SS reform, it’s happening now that Ryan is talking Medicare reform.

  • igx

    They pay for all of these thieving central planning ideas with Fed generated inflation and unnatural goosing of the economy, anyway. Everyone in society and goverment ends up doing dumb things in the long run. It works until it quits working.

  • donwalk

    Long term nursing home care is not free! Just ask the seniors who have had liens placed on their properties, both personal and real property. Unless a senior had prior planning and was able to place their homes in a trust, they end up (or their heirs)paying for their care after they have passed on.
    A senior also has to spend whatever savings and financial assets they have before qualifying for medicaid nursing home care. I believe they have to get their financial assets down to less than $3,000.00 to qualify.

  • Bat One

    The problem with liberals’ self-serving consciences is that their idea of “compassion” is always paid for with other people’s money.

  • Paul Overby

    Those liberal Canadians have a national pension program for the elderly, too. But with one major difference. A big one. It is needs based. According to some farmer friends, many retired farmers collect nothing because they are holding income generating assets (land) and don’t need taxpayer support. So they don’t collect. If they wish to collect a pension, they can sell and spend or give away down to a level where the pension kicks in. This is true “social security.” And it is compassionate.

  • kevindf

    She doesn’t really own that dollhouse.

  • Sean

    The idea that government can be compassionate makes me laugh, because putting a gun to someone’s head is real compassion.