It has been in the news recently that 6.5 million people who are 112 years old or older still have Social Security numbers. Since fewer than 40 people in the entire world have celebrated their 112th birthday, quite a few individuals might be getting government checks they do not deserve.
A Social Security Problem
Trying to identify what went wrong, the media have focused on who reports who dies, staffing at the Social Security Administration and computerization. They point out that Social Security depends on varying degrees of accuracy from the states, on an inadequately small staff and on handwritten records because of delays with transferring data to their computers.
Because I’ve been reading Why Government Fails So Often by Peter Schuck, an emeritus Yale law professor, I wanted to share a different perspective.
Social Security Successes
In his book, Peter Schuck presents many examples of government policy failures. Among his much shorter list of the successes is Social Security’s Old Age and Survivors Insurance. A program that manages data and disperses checks, Social Security has become a safety net that eliminated extreme poverty among the aged,
The Social Security Administration does lots of things right. The reason might be that it has little discretionary authority and many procedures are automatic. Think about it. How much do we get? It is all about what appears to be an indisputable formula. And then, on a given day, the checks are sent (or deposited).
Yes there are flaws like the fictitious 112 year olds and looming adaptability problems as the baby boomers age. But net/net, the program has functioned remarkably smoothly for a long time.
Our Bottom Line: The Six Ways
The system for receiving Old Age and Survivors benefits is one of Peter Schuck’s few examples of a policy success. Explaining why, he presents six criteria he believes are necessary for government to work:
- Incentives: Policy makers and policy receivers need incentives that lead to appropriate behavior.
- Rationality: Group think needs to be as rational as the ideas of the individuals that compose the group.
- Information: Facts on which policy is based should be up-to-date, unbiased and accurate.
- Adaptability: As the environment changes so too should the program.
- Credibility: Those who invest in a program need to believe in it.
- Management: Implementation systems should minimize fraud, waste and abuse.
On the other hand, when programs do not work, government destroys its legitimacy, it constrains economic growth and it harms the people it seeks to help.