Seniors Learn that Political Participation Works
By the early 1980s, senior citizens overtook younger Americans in their rates of voting, contributing to political campaigns, and contacting elected officials. And just in time. Conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan began to question spending on senior entitlement programs. For example, in 1981 the Reagan administration tried to cut Social Security benefits for early retirees and delay scheduled cost-of-living adjustments. Senior citizens fought back against this and other threats to Social Security and Medicare with surges of letter-writing to Congress – and soon such proposals were dropped. Two decades later, seniors fought against George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security. By boosting participation in politics and attention to what government was doing, Social Security gave seniors the capacity to defend their programs.
How Social Security Makes Citizenship More Equal
Democracy assumes that all citizens have an equal voice. In one sense, Social Security may be considered to cut against this ideal – by prompting older Americans to be more active than younger citizens. But that is not the most important part of the story. Among older Americans, Social Security (together with related universal programs) has helped make participation more equal, regardless of income and race.
In many respects, citizen participation is more unequal in the United States than in other advanced democracies – because richer and better educated Americans are more likely to vote, make campaign contributions, and contact elected officials. But Social Security recipients cut against the grain, and here’s why: Low-income seniors need Social Security more, receiving a greater share of their total income from the program than more affluent retirees. Because of their big stake in the program, less privileged seniors pay close attention and participate. When Social Security is at issue, older Americans with low and middling incomes are more likely than wealthy seniors to vote, make campaign contributions, and write letters to their representatives. This boost of activity has the overall effect of making political participation by America’s seniors much more equal than it would be if seniors resembled other age groups in the United States. For older American citizens, class differences and racial gaps matter less than for other age groups.
The bottom line is that Social Security is not only America’s most effective anti-poverty program; it also boosts and equalizes citizen engagement. That is rare in U.S. politics – and shows the power of universal public programs to encourage active shared citizenship as well as ensure broad economic security.
by Andrea Louise Campbell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology