Grade 9-12

Social Security and the National Debt

Time: 140 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.


Does Social Security cost too much?

Supporting Questions

  1. How much does Social Security cost and who pays for it?
  2. Who benefits Social Security?


Prior Knowledge

It is important to note that this inquiry requires prerequisite knowledge of Social Security. Additionally, students would benefit from having discussed the history of Social Security, federal taxation, and the federal budget.  This additional information together with an understanding of Social Security will provide the context to look at deficit spending and the current federal debt.

Staging the Compelling Question

To stage the compelling question, students are presented with a site that explains how social security works. This graph shows Social Security’s surpluses and deficits since 1970 and should be analyzed through a teacher moderated classroom conversation. In response to the graph, students will brainstorm (as a class) possible ways that would help ensure that the deficit for Social Security doesn’t expand – if time allows, they can then be led through a discussion on how their solutions would impact the different groups that Social Security applies to.

Supporting Question 1: How Much Does Social Security Cost and Who Pays for It?

The formative task is to write a paragraph that explains how much social security costs and who pays for it.  The two sources that are featured for the question provide a chart to explain how social security is financed and the history of social security. Fast facts & figures about Social Security explains the financial backing of Social Security, and the Overview of Social Security explains the funding sources of Social Security. Teachers may develop scaffolds for each source as they deem necessary (ie – developing guiding questions, doing read aloud, creating a graphic organizers, and other strategies/materials) may be used to support students as they work with sources.  Websites such as the Peter Peterson Foundation and EconEdu provide additional resources for students to explore.  Teachers and students can supplement the featured sources with additional resources to provide a scaffolding or a deeper understanding of the topic.

Supporting Question 2: Who Benefits from Social Security?

The formative task is to create a graphic organizer that identifies the groups that benefit from Social Security, and also, explains how the aid to each group is significant to that group. One source provides the Top ten facts about Social Security to give the students a general background of the benefits of Social Security. To understand who gets the benefits from Social Security, there will be a chart with information on Who gets Social Security and a Letter regarding old-age pensions to President Roosevelt. Having demographic information will help students create their chart. Students should attempt to include both qualitative (i.e. How does it affect their lives?) and quantitative (i.e. statistics) information in their charts. The scaffolds and other materials may be used to support students as they work with sources. Students may struggle with some of the economic language and concepts. The sources made be read together as a class to break down the language and concepts.


In the summative performance task, students construct an evidence-based argument that addresses the compelling question. It is important to note that students’ arguments could take a variety of forms.

Students’ arguments will likely vary, but could include any of the following:

  • Yes, Social Security costs too much because 24% of our national budget and Americans do not have enough revenue to support it.  
  • No, Social Security does not cost too much.  Social Security helps an enormous amount of people, particularly the elderly and the disabled.   


Activity 1

To extend their arguments, students can split into the various economic approaches and propose possible solutions to the Social Security debt problems.

Activity 2

They can do further research into possible solutions created by economists. With this bolstered analysis and information, they can engage in a class debate over the possible solutions for remediating Social Security debt, providing arguments and rebuttals. This will further give students a broader understanding of the current Social Security policy.