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Social Security and spending fairness

Thursday, March 10, 2011; 7:58 PM

Regarding Robert J. Samuelson's March 7 op-ed column, "Why Social Security is welfare":

By Mr. Samuelson's idiosyncratic definition, Social Security is welfare because "it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it's pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people's own savings pay their later benefits" and Congress can change the rules at will. A more standard definition of welfare would be that it is a payment from general revenue justified by the financial need of the recipient. Social Security benefits are justified by a lifetime of contributions to the system, and the revenue source is a payroll tax that cannot be used for any other purpose. This would seem to be sufficient difference to allow us to distinguish the two.

Yes, there are elements of social policy in the program, which is just to note that Social Security is social insurance rather than private insurance. Yes, the Social Security Act is an act of Congress, and the rules can be changed whenever our elected representatives muster the will to do so. But if this is all it takes to be classified as "welfare," pretty much everything Congress does is welfare.

Larry DeWitt, Windsor Mill, Md.

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Fareed Zakaria's March 7 op-ed column, "A backward budget," discussed relative spending for the elderly and for children. He was quite correct to point out that the federal government is spending $4 to $5 on the elderly (mainly Social Security and Medicare) for every dollar spent on children (mainly education). In fact, as Robert J. Samuelson noted elsewhere on the page, Social Security spending has become an unsustainable welfare program for the elderly, many of whom are receiving payments regardless of need.

But it is important to note that federal expenditures represented only 8.3 percent of public school expenditures in 2007. The vast majority of K-12 education spending is at the local and state levels. Education is, by far, the largest item in local government budgets. Overall K-12 per-student spending, in constant dollars, has tripled in the past 40 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. We spend more per student than nearly every other country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But this huge "investment" has not yielded results. Clearly, reform is needed, both in our systems of support for the elderly and in our systems of public education.

Robert Arias, Crownsville

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Does Robert J. Samuelson understand the meaning of the words "shared sacrifice"? Increasing the retirement age to 69 is not shared sacrifice. For Americans with good jobs, such as Mr. Samuelson and budget experts Alice Rivlin and David Walker, the increase in the retirement age inflicts little pain and may even be preferred. But for Americans with bad jobs, such as changing sheets in nursing homes, increasing the retirement age would be torture.

On the other hand, the permanent Social Security tax rate of 6.2 percent applies only to the first $106,800 of earnings, leaving the implied rate for someone who makes $200,000 at only 3.3 percent. Allowing everyone to pay the same rate would be a "shared sacrifice" that Mr. Samuelson never mentions.

Robert Loube, Silver Spring

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