GOOD ECONOMISTS ALWAYS ASK whether the benefits of a social policy outweigh its costs, and are there negative unintended consequences. Let’s ask this question about Social Security, keeping in the back of our minds the biblical admonition, “Honor thy mother and father, as the Lord thy God commanded.”
Dr. Jennifer Roback, a research fellow at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution, penned an excellent article in the Oct. 5 Forbes Magazine titled, “Chopping the Family Tree.” The article gives us some hints why parents are not honored as they were in the past. My summarization is simple: We don’t honor our parents because, through the tax code, we can get somebody else to honor them. That might be a bit too cynical, so let’s look at Roback’s analysis.
Roback says, “Families are less likely to care for their aging members at home once socialized insurance schemes are in place.” That is a terrible human cost. Many lonely old people languish in nursing homes or hospices, awaiting the grim reaper, because their care is paid for by government through Medicare. Social Security and Medicare make it convenient for children to forget about their parents’ physical and emotional needs.
Roback also points to a geographical fallout from Social Security: “Without Social Security, it is unthinkable that so many elderly people would be living in Sunbelt retirement communities, so far away from their children.”
Heightened isolation of older people produces other socially destructive consequences. Throughout most of human history, households included more than two generations, meaning they consisted of children, parents and grandparents. In cases where grandparents weren’t actually in the household, they were in close proximity.
Their absence removes the accumulated wisdom of the elderly from the home. It deprives young mothers of assistance and instruction in child-rearing. Instead, they are left dependent on day-care centers, manuals and nannies. These substitutes have nowhere near the value of loving grandparents living in the home or nearby.
Also, for most of human history, elderly people died in the homes and in the presence of their children. Grandchildren had a ringside seat and could observe old age and death close up and, at the same time, be taught their responsibilities toward the aged. When the elderly are kept at arms length, we’re cut off from the lessons of this universal reality.
There’s another fallout from Social Security. For most of human history, parents had to rely on their children in old age. Roback asks, “How many parents would stand for their adult children’s avoiding work or responsibility if those parents knew they would have to rely on lazy kids for support in their old age?” Roback says, without government-guaranteed support in old age, parents would be less likely to permit their children to squander family resources to “find themselves.” Parents who knew they would have to depend on their children would have greater incentive to assure that their children were productive.
Government programs of elderly assistance such as transportation back and forth to the doctor, home care and other senior-citizen services makes being inattentive to our parents’ needs more convenient, but it comes at a huge cost to the structure of the family.
Another negative consequence of Social Security is the powerful political bloc of senior citizens seeking to enhance their entitlements at the expense of everyone else. Politicians love this, and to keep this constituency, they must demagogue about programs for the elderly and saving Social Security.
But we might ask just how much reverence we should have for a system that has severely weakened mankind’s oldest institution — the family.