As America’s haves and have-nots drift further apart, rising inequality has undermined one of the nation’s proudest social achievements: the Social Security retirement system. Unprecedented changes in longevity, marriage, and the workplace have made the experience of old age increasingly unequal. For educated Americans, the traditional retirement age of 65 now represents late middle age. These lucky ones typically do not face serious impediments to employment or health until their mid-70s or even later. By contrast, many poorly educated earners confront obstacles of early disability, limited job opportunities, and unemployment before they reach age 65.
America’s system for managing retirement is badly out of step with these realities. Enacted in the 1930s, Social Security reflects a time when most workers were men who held steady jobs until retirement at 65 and remained married for life. The program promised a dignified old age for rich and poor alike, but today that egalitarian promise is failing. Anne L. Alstott makes the case for a progressive program that would permit all Americans to retire between 62 and 76 but would provide more generous early retirement benefits for workers with low wages or physically demanding jobs. She also proposes a more equitable version of the outdated spousal benefit and a new phased retirement option to permit workers to transition out of the workforce gradually.
A New Deal for Old Age offers a pragmatic and principled agenda for renewing America’s most successful and popular social welfare program.
A solution to inequalities wherever we look—in health care, secure retirement, education—is as close as the public library. Or the post office, community pool, or local elementary school. Public options—reasonably priced government-provided services that coexist with private options—are all around us, ready to increase opportunity, expand freedom, and reawaken civic engagement if we will only let them.
Whenever you go to your local public library, send mail via the post office, or visit Yosemite, you are taking advantage of a longstanding American tradition: the public option. Some of the most useful and beloved institutions in American life are public options—yet they are seldom celebrated as such. These government-supported opportunities coexist peaceably alongside private options, ensuring equal access and expanding opportunity for all.
Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott challenge decades of received wisdom about the proper role of government and consider the vast improvements that could come from the expansion of public options. Far from illustrating the impossibility of effective government services, as their critics claim, public options hold the potential to transform American civic life, offering a wealth of solutions to seemingly intractable problems, from housing shortages to the escalating cost of health care.
Imagine a low-cost, high-quality public option for child care. Or an extension of the excellent Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees to all Americans. Or every person having access to an account at the Federal Reserve Bank, with no fees and no minimums. From broadband internet to higher education, The Public Option reveals smart new ways to meet pressing public needs while spurring healthy competition. More effective than vouchers or tax credits, public options could offer us all fairer choices and greater security.