The original Social Security legislation had not included an inflation adjustment, which meant benefits did not keep up with the cost of living. A decade later, Ms. Fuller’s checks were worth about 40 percent less in real terms than when she started receiving them. Congress finally increased benefits in 1950 and then continued to do so in fits and starts, sometimes faster than inflation, sometimes slower and usually in an election year. President Richard M. Nixon and a Democratic Congress brought some order to this process in 1972, by automatically tying the benefits to the movement of an inflation index in the previous year. The changes were part of the transformation, during the middle decades of the 20th century, in how this country treated the elderly. In the 1930s, they had little safety net and frequently struggled to meet their basic needs. Four decades later, they were the only group of Americans with guaranteed health care and a guaranteed income. All in all, it was certainly for the good. But by the 1970s, you could start to see the early signs of excess. In their bill, Mr. Nixon and Congress included a little bonus: the increase in Social Security payments could never be less than 3 percent, no matter what inflation was. In the 1980s, Congress reduced the floor to zero — meaning that benefits would be held constant if prices fell — but the principle remained the same: heads, it’s a tie; tails, Social Security recipients win.
The argument would be that even with a zero nominal increase, Social Security recipients see an increase in real income during a period of deflation. Yes – there are the caveats about whether the CPI properly captures the cost of living for seniors especially if the relative price of drugs increases. But why did Mr. Leonhardt start his discussion by talking about the depressed economy and who would be most likely to consume any checks that the government may wish to extend?
If you wanted to help the economy and you had $14 billion to bestow on any group of people, which group would you choose: a) Teenagers and young adults, who have an 18 percent unemployment rate. b) All the middle-age long-term jobless who, for various reasons, are not eligible for unemployment benefits. c) The taxpayers of the future (by using the $14 billion to pay down the deficit). d) The group that has survived the Great Recession probably better than any other, with stronger income growth, fewer job cuts and little loss of health insurance. The Obama administration has chosen option d — people in their 60s and beyond.
Let’s think about the macroeconomic impact of a $14 billion one-time transfer payment in terms of a life-cycle model of consumption. This would be equivalent to a one-time increase in household wealth with the impact effect on consumption being equal to the increase in wealth divided by the number of remaining years of life for the individual receiving the check. If a young person were given $250, he would likely save most of it. If the $250 were given to the elderly instead, then more of the transfer payment would be consumed. Mr. Leonhardt seems to be unhappy with the President’s proposal but his reasoning here seems to be very confused.