Grade 9-12

Social Security and the National Debt

Time: 60 mins,
Updated: April 28 2020,


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze data about Social Security and its potential alternatives.

In this economics lesson, students will analyze charts and proposals to learn about the issues facing Social Security.



Write the following question on the board. Read this question to students and relay that this is the essential dilemma of the day:

What costs and trade-offs are we willing to accept to ensure the benefits of income security to Social Security recipients?

Distribute or display the cartoon Retire No More and found in the PowerPoint slides on slide 1. Give students up to 5 minutes to look over the cartoon and note observations. If they are stuck or confused, prompt them with the following:

1. What terms and images have you seen before? In what context?

Answer: Have them define words they are familiar with, including retirement and Social Security.

2. Make a list of terms with which you are unfamiliar.

Answer: This will likely include IRA and 401(k).

3. Describe how the people in the cartoon may be feeling, based on what they are saying, facial expressions, body language, and other context clues. Why do you think they feel this way?

Answer: Students will probably realize that the two people in the cartoon, although not yet elderly, are afraid they won’t have enough money in the future to retire.

Students may need help understanding that “a thing of the past” refers to the fact that the recession has reduced the size of the couple’s retirement savings and that they are reading in the news that Social Security, the government-administered pension plan, is the subject of controversy and may raise the age at which the couple would be eligible for benefits. After students have noted observations and listed familiar and unfamiliar terms, lead a discussion about the cartoon’s message, the issue it identifies, and why the issue is important.

Using slides 3 and 4 discuss what students think of when they think about retirement and different methods for funding retirement with which they are already familiar.

Display slide 3 and give students 30-60 seconds to make their brainstormed lists of word association. Discuss these words. Common answers will include things like “old, money, free time, doctor visits, traveling, etc.” Then display the yellow box and have students call out as many ways as they can think of to fund a person’s retirement.

Display slide 4 and inform students that IRAs and 401(k)s are private accounts that people can use to save their own money for retirement. They are like Social Security, but there is an individual risk of losing that money, whereas Social Security is meant to be insured by the government.


Using slides 5-8, explain how social security works. For more background, use the Overview of Social Security handout.

Display slide 5 and explain that the simplistic diagram shows the very basic premise of the mechanics behind social security. People with jobs pay a percentage, matched by their employer, into a fund. This fund is then used to pay benefits to people who have met eligibility requirements and are now “entitled” to receive those payments. You may also wish to point out that self-employed people are responsible for all 12.4%. It may also be worth mentioning the word “entitled” to students who may have heard of “entitlements” in public discourse. Explain that certain segments of the population are entitled to receive SS benefits if they meet certain criteria.

Display slide 6 and explain that this chart simply shows how the retirement and eligibility age for Social Security has increased over time. Briefly discuss this with students, but don’t spend too much time here. Later the students are going to deal with raising the retirement age as a possible solution to the budget problem of SS.

Display slide 7 and explain that this slide essentially continues the information from the previous slide regarding raising the retirement age. The Federal Government provides incentives for people to delay retirement by a few years by increasing their benefits. Whether or not this is “worth” it is an individual decision, of course, and involves multiple pieces of information including other retirement income, desire to work, health, family health, cost of living, lifestyle, etc.

Display slide 8 and explain that even though retirement beneficiaries account for the vast majority of SS benefits, almost 1/3 of the benefits go to non-retirees for various reasons. These are also entitlement payments.

Group Activity

Divide the class into groups of three or four. Give each group a packet of Costs and Benefits: Visualizations. Each group should get all five charts. Depending on time and the comfort level of students in independently analyzing graphs, the first one or two charts can be analyzed together as an entire class to model the activity first. You may also choose to distribute Perspectives on the Value of Social Security to some or all pairs of students, depending on their reading level and the level of background knowledge of the class.

After the groups are finished, conduct a class discussion about each of the charts using the information contained in slides 9-13.

Individual Activity 

Distribute Solutions for Social Security to each student. Explain that this is a partial list of proposals that have been publicly made to address the future shortfalls of Social Security. For each proposal, students should list one potential positive and one potential negative they see in the proposal. If desired and allowed, students may use their personal devices to research more about each of the proposals.

Conclude the lesson by conducting a class discussion on the most popular and least popular alternatives for the class and any additional alternatives students discovered in their research. Use the talking points provided in the Solutions for Social Security – Answer Key document for guidance.


Each student should select ONE of the proposed changes to social security and write a paragraph or two describing why that proposal is the best and support their conclusion by researching actual numbers and dollar amounts that reflect how that proposal will help solve the sustainability problem of Social Security.


Activity 1

To find out more about the actual dollar amounts associated with some of the proposed changes to Social Security, students should play the Fiscal Ship Game.