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Home » Is it time for social security & medicare to be privatized in the US?
Since its introduction in 1917, the debt ceiling has been a major bone of contention for legislators. Since then, the number has increased 78 times since 1960, with each occasion serving as a focal point for debates about government spending. After much anticipation, we have once again hit the debt ceiling, now a whopping $31.4 trillion. Last week Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced that her department would have to take extraordinary measures to prevent the country from defaulting on its debt beyond January 19, with an estimated default date in July. If the US reached this point without an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, the results would be disastrous. With America’s credit rating downgraded, interest rates would rise and likely plunge the country into recession.
Although we have found ourselves in this situation many times, this round of negotiations poses unique threats. While both parties have historically reached consensus to avoid a default, many House Republicans appear reluctant to raise the debt ceiling without significant concessions from Democrats. In particular, a primary commitment that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made to hold out the Republicans to win the speakership was to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised without corresponding spending cuts. Because President Joe Biden has insisted that such a deal is off the table, we have entered a danger zone where neither side is willing to budge in the negotiations.
While the short-term implications of this situation are certainly worrying, the current state of US finances is even more worrying. With a debt ratio below 15 globally, the US government has accumulated massive debt for the size of its economy, bringing it to a point of no return. Without systemic changes in government spending, the country risks burdening the next generation with insurmountable debt that will cripple growth.
Although the current debate on the issue is very partisan, permanently reducing the deficit was a top Democratic priority as late as the 1990s. When President Bill Clinton ran his first campaign, “Welfare to Work” was one of his key proposals, guided by his philosophy that “welfare is a second chance, not a way of life”. These programs capped welfare cash benefits to two years and tied benefits to strong job requirements. Their goal was very different from most welfare programs today: to help people find work, not to extend them an unlimited lifeline. Though certainly controversial in the modern political climate, resuming this mentality is key to allowing the federal government to permanently reduce the deficit and maintain programs like Social Security, while reforming the social safety net to support workers.
Perhaps the most logical way to embark on such reform would be to increase the SNAP work requirement from 80 hours per month and reduce the duration of unemployment benefits from 26 weeks. With a low unemployment rate and a glut of available jobs, America’s natural unemployment rate is structurally lower than in most years in the country’s history. Because of this, individuals choose not to return to work for reasons unrelated to a lack of opportunity. By tightening welfare and unemployment requirements by increasing the hours required to be eligible for SNAP, the government could push people back to work and free up cash to address the causes of increased reluctance to enter the labor force address the labor market. In particular, by providing tax credits for government-subsidized childcare and providing universal preschool education, the federal government could take steps to sustainably increase the labor force and help families return to the labor market.
While this idea may seem untenable in the modern Democratic Party, a core tenet of Biden’s campaign was the restoration of “dignity to work” in American workers, a mantra with goals very similar to such reforms. Throughout the pandemic, the “Great Resignation” has been a nationwide wake-up call about the dangers of creating excessive government benefits. Even two years later, the labor force has declined significantly, demonstrating the need for an alternative approach. By reducing dependency on unemployment and welfare, Democrats can get more American families to support themselves.
On the Republican side, programs like subsidized childcare, family tax credits, and universal preschoolers are surprisingly popular. While traditional Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, have been among the biggest supporters of these programs, even highly conservative members like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have been big supporters of these populist ideas. In 2021, Hawley proposed a $1,000 a month tax credit for families with children, a proposal that could be repurposed to gain bipartisan support. By combining elements of Democratic and Republican proposals, a compromise is possible that reshapes welfare and supports families.
Another important issue that needs to be addressed is social security. Over the past two decades, it’s been no secret that Social Security needs deep reforms to remain a viable program, but few meaningful changes have been made. While there’s no magic bullet to fix a badly flawed system, some first steps include lowering benefits for high-income individuals and raising the program’s tax limit, which currently stands at $160,200. To please Republicans, some additional steps could be taken to raise the retirement age and allow partial privatization of Social Security, which would allow citizens to invest some of their benefits directly before receiving them. These changes would make Social Security more financially viable for future generations and maintain an important program for decades to come.
Though Democrats and Republicans have struggled over the past two decades to find common ground on spending, a compromise that maintains the social safety net while sharpening its focus is possible. Rather than making extreme proposals on both ends of the spectrum, such as imposing property taxes for direct redistribution or scrapping the IRS to limit government powers, lawmakers should work to trim the fat while emphasizing the positives of existing programs to maintain. While the spending trajectory we are on is troubling, Congress can bring us closer to a sustainable solution by using the debt ceiling debate as a mechanism to drive positive change. If leaders act quickly, they can avoid a default and hopefully save America’s long-term prospects in the process.
Nikhil Sharma is an opinion columnist and can be reached at [email protected]. Related articles