Social Security is often described as the Third Rail of Politics. You touch it, you die of electric shock and exit the political stage in a hearse. Incoming Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson tested this proposition by giving his first major address on the subject of “entitlement reform,” aka Social Security. But behind the Third Rail of Social Security is the Real Third Rail a subject so toxic, no one even wants to think about it. But if we could deal with this Forbidden Topic, the Social Security problem would largely solve itself.
That Real Third Rail is fertility. No one wants to mention that the insolvency of the Social Security system is a fertility crisis at least as much as a fiscal crisis. It is considered rude to mention that the collapse in the fertility levels, particularly striking among the most gifted women in society, is a contributing factor to the insolvency of our entitlement programs.
America’s total fertility rate peaked in 1957 at 3.68 babies per woman. Today, our fertility rate hovers right around the replacement rate of 2.1. The fertility of college educated non-Hispanic white women is now around 1.7. Since these are the women whose children are most likely to become productive taxpaying citizens, their fall in fertility takes a particularly large toll on the future taxes paid into the Social Security system.
According to Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, authors of The Coming Generational Storm, the Social Security system does not recognize the contributions of working spouses. But the problem is even more acute: the system doesn’t recognize the contributions of non-working spouses either.
Nobody gets any credit for raising children.
When Social Security was established, people got married and stayed married for a lifetime. Most women stayed home and raised children. At the end of their lifetimes, most married couples were still together. The Social Security system took these family arrangements for granted.
In effect, both spouses made contributions to the Social Security system. The husband paid taxes. The wife raised children. When the family collected the pension, based on the husband’s income, both spouses shared it.
As most people now realize, however, the husband’s taxes don’t go into a little account with his name on it. Those taxes go to pay the benefits of the currently retired generation. The children, raised by the wife, become the taxpayers who actually make the contributions which support the parents in their old age.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. She blogs at jennifer-roback-morse.blogspot.com
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