Social Security shows what can happen when government addresses a problem: It ends up causing a different problem.
First, the good news.
Social Security has helped to redefine old age. Just a few decades ago, a hiccup in the scope of human history, most people worked until they died. For those who lived into what we would consider “old age,” doing so generally meant to be poor and dependent.
“Children, friends and relatives have borne and still carry the major cost of supporting the aged,” a federal committee reported in 1935. “Several of the state surveys have disclosed that 30 to 50 percent of people over 65 years of age were being supported in this way.”
For example, when my great-grandfather died in the 1950s, his wife went to live with her daughter’s family, and spent the rest of her life there. That sort of thing seldom needs to happen anymore, even though people are living longer than ever. Average life expectancy at birth soared to 78 in the year 2008, up from 47 in the year 1900.
These days, older people tend to be the wealthiest cohort, and they’re getting richer. “The typical U.S. household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35,” an Associated Press story reported in 2011. “This wealth gap is now more than double what it was in 2005 and nearly five times the 10-to-1 disparity a quarter-century ago, after adjusting for inflation.”
Meanwhile, things aren’t so rosy at the other end of the age spectrum.
More than 13 percent of Americans aged 20-24 are unemployed. That’s more than 10 million people who aren’t getting started down the path to success. We used to call that “failure to launch” and make comedies about it. Today, our president just assumes that 25-year-olds are helpless. He goes around the country bragging that people can now stay on their parent’s insurance until they’re 26. It’s about the only feature of Obamacare that seems to have arrived on time.
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