November 2011, Shawn Fremstad
Millions of American workers are poorly compensated for the work they do. This is not because they do not work hard or deserve adequate compensation. Rather, it is due to a political failure to ensure that increases in economic growth and productivity over the last several decades have been fairly distributed. One consequence of this failure is that many working-class Americans do not enjoy the living standards they deserve either during their working years or when they retire. Without the earned benefits provided by Social Security, along with Medicare and related health insurance benefits for the elderly, these workers would see their already modest living standards in old age fall even further below typical ones.
The federal government should strengthen Social Security in ways that increase the retirement security of middle- and working-class Americans. Particular attention should be paid to improving the living standards in retirement of workers in poorly compensated jobs, who typically have little or no retirement savings outside of Social Security. Some recent proposals to cut Social Security would put the retirement security of workers in poorly compensated jobs at further risk. While it would be wise to shore up the long-term finances of Social Security, this can be done without cutting benefits for working- and middle-class retirees. Finally, it is important to remember that Social Security by itself cannot be the sole vehicle for addressing an economy that is out of balance. We need to do much more improve job quality in the United States by ensuring that poorly compensated workers get a better deal.
This report examines the essential role that Social Security plays in bolstering the retirement security of poorly compensated workers.