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Grade 9-12
,
Lesson

Social Security, Governance, and the National Debt

Time: 60 mins,
Updated: April 28 2020,

Objective

Students will be able to:

  • Analyze graphs, tables, and charts.
  • Examine sources for information and interpretations, and for cases where they corroborate, complement, or contradict each other.

In this economics lesson, students will examine concerns about balancing the budget and the role of the federal government.

Procedure

Warm-Up

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

What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?

Begin this lesson by presenting students with the graph presented in Elderly Poverty and Social Security Expenditures Over Time which is also provided on Slide 2 of the Social Security, Governance, and the National Debt PowerPoint. Ask students to work with a partner to analyze the graph and explain its data in their own words. Use the Elderly Poverty and Social Security Expenditures Over Time – Answer Key as a reference.

Modeling

Tell students that Social Security, the largest program of the federal government, can be different things to different people. Share the following list of comments in Different Things to Different People, which is also found on Slide 3, and ask students to discuss with a partner why is Social Security so important and so popular, and yet so controversial.

Ask student if they believe these competing views on the program simply reflect different assessments of the cost of the program, or do they also reflect different visions of what kind of country we are and what role we want the federal government to play in our lives?

Explain to students that Social Security is a federally funded program that provides a retirement income to people over the age of 62 who have paid into the system through payroll taxes for at least 10 years. From the time that Social Security was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on August 14, 1935, the program has raised questions about the proper balance between individual and government (collective) responsibilities.

Today, as in 1935, there are many opinions about whether the federal government should administer a retirement fund. Some believe this is not the proper role for the federal government, and that individuals must arrange for their own retirement. Others believe that the federal government has the right and the duty to require individuals and their employers to participate in a program that will ensure a minimum level of income to all retired people. Many believe that both individuals and the government have roles to play.

The debate about Social Security is about more than taxes and government spending. Ultimately, this debate gets to the core of questions about the kind of country we are and the kind of country we want to be. Are we a country of individuals who prioritize the value of free choice over shared responsibility, comfortable with the fact that not everyone will be best served by governance that reflects that priority? Or are we a country that prioritizes the value of community and shared responsibility over free choice, comfortable that some individual autonomy may be sacrificed?

Ask students what they know about Social Security from current news reports and what they may have learned from their parents, grandparents, or elderly neighbors. In particular, explain the impact the retirement of the “baby boomers” (the increased number of babies born in the 20 years following World War II) will have on the future of Social Security. Students may say that, in light of the effect Social Security appears to have had on poverty among the elderly, cutbacks in the program might present a terrible dilemma. Help students understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and encourage multiple answers on how that could be reflected with new information from the mini-lesson.

Ask students to consider why the country might not simply use money from the general fund to supplement the Social Security trust fund when, 20 years from now, the money begins to run out and, at the current level of funding, retirees can no longer receive their full pensions. Students may suggest that money would have to come from somewhere. Help students recognize that the source of this money is not unlimited, and that money spent on Social Security cannot be spent in other areas like infrastructure or defense. Explain to students that deciding how, as a nation, to allocate our limited resources is a difficult decision that often involves choosing among programs we value or using taxes to raise more revenue. Tell students that they will be investigating this dilemma throughout the course of this lesson.

Group Activity

Divide the class into four groups and distribute the comments from one of the former U.S. Presidents quoted in Presidential Viewpoints on Social Security to each quarter of the class. Explain to students that each reading represents a somewhat different point of view. Students should reference these statements as they work with their group to and the questions in Viewpoint Summary. As the students work, refer to the Viewpoint Summary – Answer Key and move from group to group, answering questions and clarifying points of confusion.

Individual Activity

Divide the class into four groups and distribute the comments from one of the former U.S. Presidents quoted in Presidential Viewpoints on Social Security to each quarter of the class. Explain to students that each reading represents a somewhat different point of view. Students should reference these statements as they work with their group to and the questions in Viewpoint Summary. As the students work, refer to the Discussion Guide and move from group to group, answering questions and clarifying points of confusion.

Remind students that the rising number of retirees presents our country with a critical dilemma. With the prospect of a long-term shortfall in full funding for a government program many have come to take for granted, we must address the question of what responsibility we (the government) have for ensuring the elderly a secure and stable standard of living, and at what cost.

Present students with the political cartoon in Social Security Benefits Increase, which is also provided on Slide 4, and ask them to consider its meaning. After students have studied the cartoon for several minutes, ask what they notice, drawing them out on the detail of what they see. Ask students to explain the basis of the interpretation and ask other students if they agree or disagree. If students are having difficulty interpreting the cartoon, ask them more directed questions by referring to the Social Security Benefits Increase – Answer Key.

Ask students if they believe the public would generally agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, and support the range of points of view students express. Tell students that they will revisit this cartoon at the end of the lesson to see if their understandings have changed.

Assessment

To help students begin to develop their own opinions on this subject, ask them to do a “5-minute write” in response to the essential dilemma of this lesson – What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living? Use the Assessment worksheet for additional questions

.When students have finished writing, divide them into small groups and ask them to share what they wrote with their classmates. Explain to students that this is not a debate; rather, it is a way for students to learn about the opinions of their fellow classmates and further develop their own opinions on this topic. After each student has shared her or his opinion, the groups should discuss the ideas presented, guided by the questions in the Assessment – Answer Key.

After each group has discussed their ideas, ask for volunteers to summarize their deliberation for the rest of the class. Ask other groups if their experiences were similar or different, and discuss their responses with the class. Conclude this part of the activity by asking students to share what additional information they would need to make a more informed decision about the essential dilemma of this lesson.

Extension

When students have completed their discussion of the options, turn their attention back to the cartoon, provided in Social Security Benefits Increase and on Slide 4, and ask them to revisit their comments. Lead students in a brief discussion guided by the following questions.

  • Why is the man depicted in the cartoon “celebrating” the increase in Social Security benefits?
  • Should the federal government make sure he has a secure and stable standard of living?

Ask students to write a 250-word essay addressing the essential dilemma: What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living? Their work should make use of the statements they read in the handouts and incorporate the ideas developed in their discussion with their classmates.