The national focus on Social Security’s benefits for seniors obscures its role as one of the largest antipoverty programs for children. Without Social Security, the child poverty rate would skyrocket to 43 percent nationally, reaching nearly 60 percent in black communities.
New research, “Overlooked But Not Forgotten: Social Security Lifts Millions More Children Out Of Poverty,” finds that nearly 6.4 million (or 1 in 10) children benefit from the program, receiving benefits directly, or indirectly because they live in a household with a family member who receives benefits. This number is double the figure typically cited based on the Current Population Survey and the Annual Statistical Supplements of the Social Security Administration (SSA), which includes only direct beneficiaries who qualify with a strict set of criteria: under 18, unmarried, and with a retired or disabled parent who receives benefits or a deceased parent who paid Social Security taxes.
Uncounted and overlooked are the rapidly growing numbers of children — 3.2 million and counting — who indirectly benefit, driven by a 70 percent increase in the number of multigenerational households in the United States since 1990. This trend, reported by the Pew Research Center in 2014, is influenced by an aging population, household economic pressures, increased immigration, and high rates of unemployment and underemployment.
The lack of public awareness of Social Security’s role in supporting economic security for kids stems from inadequate research and education about its role as an antipoverty tool for more than just seniors. While there has been a large focus on the benefits children receive from discretionary programs — such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides support to disabled low-income individuals and young people transitioning out of foster care, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides support for pregnant women and families with children — policy makers, practitioners and advocates have yet to focus on Social Security’s role in combating child poverty in the U.S.
In our research, we spoke to many individuals who received Social Security benefits as children, directly and indirectly. Ja’Ovvoni is a 26-year-old black man from Ohio. The third of nine kids, Ja’Ovvoni’s family received disability benefits for his younger sister who has spina bifida and retirement benefits for his grandmother while he was growing up. Without indirect benefits, his single mom may have had no choice but to place him and his siblings in foster care.
Stories like Ja’Ovvoni’s highlight the crucial role Social Security plays not only in lifting children out of poverty but in strengthening families and the foundation for success later in life.
Youth workers, advocates, policymakers and funder should understand Social Security’s role in providing economic stability for vulnerable children, and prioritize strengthening it by advocating for the following:
- Increase benefits for those who need them most by lifting the cap on taxable wages, compressing benefits for the highest-income individuals, and bringing all state and local workers into the system;
- Encourage youth to pursue higher education, which will increase their prospects for breaking the cycle of poverty, by extending Social Security benefits to post-secondary school students;
- Provide a structured unemployment credit to help alleviate the financial stress of part-time work on families, especially those with children who receive indirect Social Security benefits.
We must break the silos between child advocates fighting poverty and traditional advocates for Social Security, uniting in common cause, rooted in the knowledge that strengthening Social Security is one of the best ways America can reduce and prevent poverty among children and their families. It’s time to recognize that when we advocate for Social Security we are advocating for youth.