One of the more influential letters to the editor in American history appeared on September 30, 1933, in the Long Beach Press-Telegram. It was penned by a broke citizen named Francis Townsend, a one-time hay farmer, dry-ice manufacturer, real estate agent, and physician living in Southern California. His letter pitched a simple idea for how to end the Great Depression: The government should send $150 a month to every American over the age of 60 as a reward for a life of toil. Doing so, he argued, would stanch mass poverty among the elderly and kick-start the economy with new spending.
The elderly doctor’s message spread like wildfire. “Townsend clubs” sprang up across the nation, gathering at least 1.5 million members in the first couple of years. By 1935, 56 percent of Americans favored adoption of the so-called Townsend plan—influencing the establishment of the Roosevelt administration’s Social Security Act that same year.
Years after the Press-Telegram letter made him famous, Townsend recounted the (possibly apocryphal) circumstances that inspired its writing. He had been gazing out his window in Long Beach one morning, he said, when he saw three old women rooting through the garbage for food. The sight made him snap. “A torrent of invectives tore out of me,” he recalled. When his wife told him to quiet down lest the neighbors hear, he thundered back: “I want all the neighbors to hear me! I want God Almighty to hear me! I’m going to shout till the whole country hears!”
Duncan Black’s neighbors probably can’t hear him tapping away on his laptop in his Philadelphia row house, but he has been doing his best to become Townsend’s modern heir. An economist and former college professor, Black—who goes by the pseudonym “Atrios” online—is one of America’s most popular political bloggers; his typical output consists of short, snarky quips on the news from a liberal perspective. But in late 2012 he embarked on a sustained crusade, on his blog and in a series of columns for USA Today, to inject a single idea into America’s policy discourse: “We need an across-the-board increase in Social Security retirement benefits of 20 percent or more,” he declared in the opening of a column for USA Today. “We need it to happen right now.”
The proposal was not exactly attuned to the political winds in Washington. Indeed, for anyone inclined to think in terms of counting potential votes in Congress—especially this Congress—the idea of expanding Social Security is the epitome of a political non-starter. Black’s proposal was attuned, however, to a mounting pile of research and demographic data that describes a gathering disaster. The famously large baby boom generation is heading into retirement. Thanks to decades of stagnant wages and the asset collapse of the Great Recession, more than half of American working-class households are at risk of being unable to sustain their standard of living past retirement. To put it even more starkly, according to research by the economists Joelle Saad-Lessler and Teresa Ghilarducci, 49 percent of middle-class workers are on track to be “poor or near poor” after they retire.
There is very little safety net left to break this fall. The labor market for older workers is bleak. Private pensions are largely a thing of the past. Private savings are so far gone that some 25 percent of households with 401(k) and other retirement plans have raided them early to cover expenses, and a growing number of Americans over age 50 find themselves accumulating, not settling, debt. On the whole, 401(k)s have proved a “disaster,” as Black puts it, one that has enriched the financial sector but lashed the country’s retirement security to a volatile stock market—and left 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 with less than $30,000 in their accounts.
What’s left? Social Security. Though it was never meant to be a national retirement system all by itself, that’s increasingly what it has become. For Americans over age 65 in the bottom half of the income distribution, Social Security makes up at least 80 percent of retirement income.
And yet, when Social Security has been in the news in recent years, it has usually been because someone wants to cut it. With Republicans in Congress ever more devoted to dismantling government, and the Congressional left doing everything it can just to fight the erosion of social programs, the center in American politics has increasingly come to be defined by deficit scolds preaching the “hard choices” of austerity. And the deficit reduction industry, a network of people in both parties who tend to enjoy favorable media attention for being “serious minded,” has long painted Social Security cuts as responsible fiscal policy—never mind that the program is funded outside the budget and does not add to the deficit.
All of this is especially surreal when you consider one additional fact: About 75 percent of Americans say we should consider increasing Social Security benefits, according to a survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance. Increasing Social Security is an idea that’s popular, concrete, and arguably necessary to forestall mass poverty among the elderly. But because it’s not “serious,” it hasn’t even been on the table in Washington. In a fit of quixotic energy, Black set out to change this. What’s remarkable is that his fool’s errand seems to be working.
Duncan Black didn't exactly plan to become one of America’s most aggressive advocates of retirement security. He first conceived of his crusade as a formal experiment in trying to change the conversation—using, of all things, a page from the playbook of the American right wing.
For years, bloggers and activists like Black in the online progressive movement have been fascinated with something called the Overton Window, a theory of how ideas enter the political mainstream and eventually become policy. The theory was coined by the libertarian thinker Joseph Overton, who argued that the public can only countenance a fairly narrow “window” of acceptable views on a given subject at a given time. Politicians, in order to be seen as viable, generally have to endorse views within that narrow range. However, savvy members of a political movement can work to move the Overton Window. By endorsing proposals that split the distance between views that are inside the window and the movement’s ultimate goal, activists can gradually drag the window toward their desired end position. To change policy, the idea goes, you change the political environment.
For the past several years, the right has been especially skillful at moving parts of its agenda into the public consciousness and onto the law books this way. For example, instead of pushing for an outright ban on abortion—an ultimate goal that many GOP leaders endorse—Republican state legislatures have passed things like parental notification requirements, or partial bans on abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, or targeted regulation of abortion providers (known as TRAP laws) to restrict access. Sometimes the legislators overreach, and a proposal that falls too far outside the Overton Window gets promoted—like the Virginia GOP’s politically disastrous attempt to force abortion-seekers to endure a transvaginal ultrasound. But even such blunders can move the window in the desired direction, by making other, more “moderate” ways of restricting abortion access seem more palatable.
American liberal groups, by contrast, have arguably lost their feel for setting out a vision and moving the country towards it. According to Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat of Arizona and a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, liberals have spent too much time trying to protect what remains of the social safety net, becoming dangerously accustomed to mobilizing in opposition. “When you’ve been at the barricades for the last decade, it’s hard to get on offense,” he said. Where Social Security is concerned, this has meant fighting tooth and nail to defend the existing meager benefit, even though it isn’t sufficient to forestall the looming retirement crisis.
And so, when USA Today approached Duncan Black about writing a series of columns during the 2012 election, he saw the platform as a golden opportunity to try his own hand at moving the Overton Window. “People say we should cut Social Security, I’ll say let’s expand it,” he recounted later of his rationale. “It was kind of a lark.”
It was only later that Black realized the urgency of his case. In late January, he attended a conference put on by the National Academy of Social Insurance, a non-partisan policy group of experts. He found that many there agreed on the nature and scope of the retirement crisis. Yet nobody felt like they could step out and state what seemed obvious: that the best solution would be to take the existing delivery system of Social Security and just add to it. “They had all these Rube Goldberg-type ideas to help at the margins,” Black said. Not only were such technocratic devices inadequate in the face of the crisis, Black realized, they had far less political mobilizing power than a simple solution based on what people already know. Proposing a dramatic expansion of Social Security might seem fanciful, but at least it could serve as a kind of political North Star.
The first few months of 2013 found liberals playing their usual defensive role in Washington, mobilizing against deficit hawks—including President Obama—seeking to cut Social Security. In April, trying to strike a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction with Republicans, Obama proposed a slower rate of benefit growth for Social Security called “chained CPI,” a de facto cut to the program that would give the average 85-year-old around $1,000 less in annual benefits. A progressive coalition delivered over two million signatures to the White House gates opposing the proposal. Retirees scheduled a “human chain” in multiple cities to protest the move. Other groups threatened primary challenges to any Democratic legislator who voted for cuts. Reacting to this immediate threat crowded out any interest in expanding the program: “The thing everyone agreed on,” said Daniel Mintz, former senior campaign director for MoveOn.org, “was protecting Social Security from the D.C. establishment.”
But around the edges of Capitol Hill the ground started to shift. In April, the New America Foundation, a prominent D.C. think tank, released a report that called for an annual increase of more than $11,000 in benefits for individuals on Social Security. The report went further than Black in suggesting different ways to structure the new benefit and how to pay for it. The proposal received widespread coverage, and represented a breakthrough for getting Social Security expansion into circulation among Washington policy mandarins (though even positive reports from left-leaning policy writers felt compelled to explain that it would never happen politically).
As spring and summer went by, other writers began to endorse the idea of expanding Social Security—not just scribes for liberal publications like The Nation and The American Prospect, but also the conservative writer Josh Barro of Bloomberg (now at Business Insider) and Edward Siedle, who covers retirement finance for Forbes. This fall, even the conservative journal National Affairs featured an essay that, in passing, advocates for expanding Social Security on grounds of its simplicity.
Two years ago, the liberal Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed a modest bill to change the way cost of living adjustments are calculated, so that Social Security benefits could better reflect seniors’ increasing medical costs. For months the legislation languished. But after Harkin re-introduced the measure in March, the newfound interest in expanding Social Security transformed the bill into a rallying cry. Over the summer, groups like MoveOn.org, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which collectively reach millions of liberals, started to heavily promote the Harkin effort. Harkin’s bill would only increase Social Security benefits by around $60 a month on average, a far cry from the New America Foundation’s proposed nearly $11,000 annual increase and Duncan Black’s call for a 20 percent hike. But such is the Overton Window in action: Maximalist policy ideas lead to a more moderate position—one that moves the window in the right direction.
Of course, the prevailing Washington consensus still dictates that Social Security must be cut rather than expanded. As of this writing, an upcoming vote to raise the nation’s debt limit threatens to drag the program back onto the chopping block. The White House has kept its chained CPI proposal “on the table” for further negotiations with Republicans. And Harkin’s bill isn’t coming to a vote anytime soon. But as Duncan Black wrote in a modest celebratory note this spring, “We’ve started to change the conversation about Social Security ever so slightly.” While that’s an ineffable thing, it’s also the first hurdle for any idea that deviates from Beltway conventional wisdom.
Less than two years went by before Francis Townsend’s movement for old-age insurance rallied enough followers to become impossible to ignore. Of course, life was already incredibly bleak for the elderly poor when Townsend wrote his letter to the editor in 1933. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, history could well be on its way to repeating itself. But we have a choice: We can watch as another generation of Americans descends into poverty and desperation, or we can do something to prevent it. The call to expand Social Security is already popular; it’s only starting to get serious.