Joseph Quinn: Providing first-year students at Boston College with an introduction to Social Insurance

“Social Security won’t be there for me when I retire,” is a comment often heard from young people. Dispelling that myth is just one of the lessons Professor Joseph Quinn presents to Boston College freshmen in his course titled “Am I My Brother’s (or Sister’s) Keeper? Social Insurance in America”. His one credit mini-course is one of many introductory options offered to new students at the start of the school year.

Professor Quinn, a founding member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, says, “I’m always pleasantly surprised that young people are interested in the topic of Social Security. Of course, they should be interested in it, because the Social Security Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States – and they’ll soon be paying for it!” He says his goal in the class is not to push Social Security, but to describe it and explain the challenges ahead. An Academy publication, A Young Person’s Guide to Social Social Security, is on the reading list and guides some of the discussions.

Professor Quinn first taught the class in 2014, with the subtitle “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” That semester 12 out of 14 students in the class were male. Coincidence? Probably, but the next semester he added (“or Sister’s”) to the title and since then a more equal number of men and women have enrolled.

Social Security Insights

The course begins with a discussion of domestic and world demographics, with a look at how the age pyramid showing the relative size of different male and female age groups from 0-5 to 100+  has changed. “The age pyramid has changed from a triangle, with many workers and relatively few Americans of traditional retirement age, to more like a rectangle, with many more retirees per worker,” says Professor Quinn. “This is behind many of the problems facing Social Security and Medicare. In 1950 the ratio of workers to retirees was five to one, but now it’s less than three to one and it’s heading to two to one. If five people chip in to give grandma one dollar, it costs them each 20 cents. But when two people chip in to give grandma a dollar, it costs them each 50 cents.” The challenges of an aging society are occurring world-wide, and many countries are well ahead of us on the aging curve.

One common misconception that many students begin with is that Social Security will soon run out of money and therefore will not be there for them when they retire. “That’s just not true,” says Professor Quinn. “Even if we do nothing about the shortfall, the amount of money coming in after the mid-2030s will still be enough to fund about 75% of the Social Security obligation. We would have to cut benefits by 25 percent, and that would be very bad news, but not as bad as no Social Security at all.”

Students are surprised to find out that Social Security will cover them for the next 30-40 years in the event of severe disability or the death of a spouse. Disability insurance is a valuable part of what Social Security offers American workers before they reach retirement age. At an Academy sponsored seminar for interns in Washington this summer, participants learned that an individual between the ages of 20 and 67 has a one in three chance of experiencing a disability or death before retirement.

Another take-away for students in Professor Quinn’s class is that there are many ways to fix the anticipated Social Security shortfall. “Many economic solutions are eminently doable,” he says, “though we currently do not have the political will.”

The challenges facing Social Security are frequently addressed by Academy Members in talks in Washington and around the country. Stephen Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, recently spoke at the Social Security Intern Academy in D.C.  Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, went to Chicago to talk to community leaders about ways Social Security, America's most popular and important domestic program, can achieve long-term financial balance. The Academy has also been addressing concerns about independent workers (those in the “gig” economy) who face workplace risks without the benefits of social insurance offered to traditional employees and with gaps in their participation that can impact their retirement.

About Joseph Quinn

Joseph F. Quinn is a Founding Member of the National Academy of Social Insurance. He served on the Academy’s Board of Directors (2002-2010), on the Executive Committee (2004-2009), and as Vice President (2007-2009).

Professor Quinn teaches economics at Boston College. He served as the Interim Provost during AY2013-2014 and as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1999 to 2007. He co-chaired the Technical Panel on Trends and Issues in Retirement Savings for President Clinton's 1994-1995 Social Security Advisory Council. He has published extensively, including articles on the economics of aging, the determinants of the individual retirement decision, trends in the work and retirement patterns of older Americans, and Social Security reform.

He is a member of the (Massachusetts) Governor’s Council on Healthy Aging, Employment Working Group, and has served on many other advisory boards. Professor Quinn has also taught at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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