Grade 9-12

Social Security, Governance, and the National Debt

Time: 175 mins,
Updated: April 28 2020,


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.


How Should We Reform Social Security?

Supporting Questions

  1. What challenges does US Social Security face?
  2. What changes could improve Social Security?


Prior Knowledge

It is important to note that this inquiry requires prerequisite knowledge of the reasons for implementing the Social Security Act and program, the current use of Social Security and role in personal and national economic matters.  Additionally, familiarity with the legislative process of passing laws for extension activities.

Staging the Compelling Question

To stage the compelling question, teachers should have students watch two short videos, 10 Global Challenges for Social Security and Social Security projected to be depleted in 2035, to highlight the current challenges facing Social Security. If needed, this exercise could be augmented with additional background reading or teacher presentation on the history of the Social Security program, both for identifying its origins and purpose past and present.  The videos should be framed as identifying Social Security as existing in all societies and that concerns about it are not unique to just the United States.  Students should watch the two videos for the commonality in concerns across nations and for the reasons why we are concerned about Social Security today. After the videos the students individually identify concerns from across the Americas that are common with the US.  The teacher should facilitate a large group discussion about the concerns that were identified and then lead the students to supporting question one and formative tasks.

Supporting Question 1: What Challenges does US Social Security Face?

The formative task is, create a list of prioritized concerns for Social Security. The concerns will be found the sources connected to the supporting question. The sources include Source A: Five Facts of the New Social Security Board of Trustees, Source B: Quick Take on Social Security, Source C: Social Security only 16 Years from Insolvency, and Source D: Social Security is Drying Up: This Plan Could Save It.  Teachers may implement this task with the following procedures:

  • Students can individually identify 3-5 concerns facing US Social Security in the near future and prioritizing the concerns.
  • Students could collaboratively with small groups of peers find consensus around 3-5 concerns and the prioritization of them.
  • Students could share with the whole class their 3-5 concerns identifying the commonalities or categories of concerns.
  • Finally, students record or journal their own prioritized listing of the top 3-5 concerns with evidence from the sources A-D.

Supporting Question 2: What Changes Could Improve Social Security?

The formative task is to have students read and review proposals and create a “Benefit vs Challenge” T-Chart analyzing specific proposals for reforming Social Security:

Benefits to Proposed Reform Challenges to Proposed Reform
Student List… Student List…

Teachers may implement this task with the following procedures:

  • Students begin by reading and reviewing Source A, Fix Social Security? Americans Do Not Have the Answers, and its graphic on popular support for various Social Security reform proposals.  Teacher should identify vocabulary and proposals that need clarification and provide this.  Additionally, students could reflect on the data identifying popular support for various proposals.
  • Students could use one of the three sources, B: How the Next President Could Save Social Security, C: How the 2020 Democrats would fix Social Security, or D: 3 New Plans to Fix Social Security to read and review various proposals. Sources are in order of literacy and content complexity, with B being the most complex, C less, and D the least.  Teachers should determine student/class reading levels and decide if they want to have students use just one common source, or assign different sources based on individual or group needs.
  • After individually reading the source, students should collaboratively create a T-Chart of the proposals presented in their reading.
  • Students should complete T chart using Source A, their reading Source B, C, or D and Sources E, Meeting the Social Security Challenge, and F, An Interactive tool to fix Social Security.
  • Student groups should then share their T-Charts with the class.


At this point in the inquiry, students have examined the current anticipated concerns about Social Security funding imbalances, public support of some proposals, and anticipated costs/savings of various proposals to address Social Security funding shortfalls.

Students should be expected to demonstrate the breadth of their understandings and their abilities to use evidence from multiple sources to support their claims. In this task, students will present their own individual argument using multiple claims supported by evidence to answer; how should we reform Social Security, in the format of a letter to the editor advocating in support of their proposed changes.


Activity 1
To extend their arguments, teachers could have students adjust the target audience of their letter-to-the-editor to be directed toward ISSA, AARP, local political officials, union/labor/worker groups, chamber of commerce, etc. Students could expand counter arguments to address multiple proposals they would support within their letter to the editor.

Activity 2
Students have the opportunity to Take Informed Action by surveying peers and class family members about various proposals, reviewing these findings, and using the findings to intentionally adjust/frame claims and arguments when submitting letters to their school newspaper, local political leaders or newspapers.