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Social Security: A Catholic Perspective

Updated on February 28, 2011
Social Insecurity Card
Social Insecurity Card

Social Insecurity

      Insanity is oftentimes defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. If there were a man who had a jug of water from which he continually drank, and kept expecting the jug to contain the same amount of liquid, he would most definitely be viewed as insane. Put another way; if a man possessed any fixed amount of money and, while constantly withdrawing from it, expected to retain the same amount, he also would be referred to as delusional. The United States’ Social Security system was originally adopted to provide financial protection to those who are disabled and dependents of a person in event of their death, as well as to provide the elderly with a guaranteed retirement plan. Currently, however, it is facing a massive budget deficit with further expected decreases in contributions, while concurrently seeing a rise in the price of benefits and the amount of people demanding such benefits. While a rational analysis shows the system on an obvious collision course with disaster, politicians and the managers of Social Security keep going the same route as the American public expects the situation to resolve itself. The Social Security system of late, therefore, is clearly a work of insanity. The current structure is burdened by both institutional and moral imperfections to which a solution must be rapidly found if any sort of stability is to return to the program. A shift towards a more privatized system of social security would make the project of social insurance much more feasible and stable, as well as introducing a higher moral foundation acceptable by the Catholic Church.

     The existing organization of social security in The United States is one of complete disarray. It is the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure, at $612 billion (20.8%), of the 2008 $2.9 trillion federal budget[1]. At this time it is projected to be running a deficit of 15.9 trillion dollars[2], and is expected to be bankrupt by 2037[3]. With over 56 million American citizens relying on this for their immediate and future income, it is clear that a possible loss in its ability to pay will result in catastrophe for those retirees, disabled, and survivors of the deceased who depend on it.[4] Knowing this, it is obvious that there is an underlying economic error involved.

      It is important to remember that social security does in fact assist many people, so the fruits of it are not necessarily evil. There are many things to be said for attempting to create a system which is created with some sense of the common good in mind. When social security was started in fact, it even seemed to be financially feasible. It initially started in 1935 as a simple retirement plan for the primary worker, with a focus on the most needy[5]. At the time, it had a worker to beneficiary ratio of 159:1.[6] With that many people having to cover the retirement of relatively few people, the tax rate was not too extreme, and it seemed as though the system would be able to continue ad infinitum. Ethically speaking, any sincere attempt to reach out to the less fortunate should initially be upheld as a noble step in the direction of striving to serve the common good.

      As mentioned earlier, the financial side of the current social security system is expected to last at most a couple decades before its debt catches up with it. Many people now paying into the system are already, begrudgingly, planning on its non-existence by the time of their retirement. There are many reasons for this disastrous turn of events. One of them is the steady increase in life expectance, but in comparison, the two major factors basically dwarf that problem to a technicality. The first of the major factors is that the number of programs and types of benefits one can now receive through social security makes the initial act almost unrecognizable. This change from a simple retirement plan for the needy has become a wishful panacea for every American’s financial woes. The second major factor is that the ratio of worker to beneficiary has decreased to an almost unbelievable level. Recall that at the passing into law, the ratio was 159:1. The latest ratio available at the social security administration’s website points to 2006, in which the ratio of worker to beneficiary was 3:1. With no signs of change in sight, this is an impossible system to expect to sustain.

     From a moral standpoint, at present the social security system is flawed in a variety of ways. The first collision with morality is that the principle of subsidiary function is overlooked in taking responsibility away from individuals. The principle of subsidiarity states that:

     “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.”[7]

     In other words, the government should only interfere when absolutely necessary, that is, when no other lower-level entity can take steps to resolve the problem. While it is thoughtful of the federal government to set everyone up with a retirement plan, this can easily be done at a lower level. It is the responsibility of the individual to plan for his and his family’s own financial future. Not only is the system made less efficient by this, but it also unnecessarily constricts the freedom of the individual if his entire financial future and livelihood is expressly tied to the state.

     The second moral objection is that the property rights of the workers are violated through the appropriation of their earnings by the government. Many may argue that, if a person does not adequately handle their finances in such a way as to sustain their quality of life in the future, the involuntary acquisition of a person’s money is justified so as to secure their future for them. This is the raison d'être for many of the Social Security measures currently in place. Instead of attempting to instill virtues of moderation and responsibility in the culture, many measures of the Social Security system encourage reckless and irresponsible behavior by taking the necessity for prudence from a responsibility of the individual and instead making it a function of The State. Although the motive is possibly admirable, the means by which this end is achieved is fundamentally flawed. The involuntary use or managing of one’s property, regardless of intention, is undoubtedly wrong. As Pope Pius XI says in his encyclical; “They are in error who assert that ownership and its right use are limited by the same boundaries; and it is much farther still from the truth to hold that a right to property is destroyed or lost by reason of abuse or non-use.”[8]It is made clear, therefore, that regardless of whether or not the state believes that the individual is properly planning for their future with their earnings as the state sees fit, it is in grave violation of one’s ownership of property for the state to forcibly acquire someone’s possessions or money and to plan out their future use for that person.

     Yet another concern is that the government retains the right to withhold any social security payments as it sees fit. It is not legally obligated to pay back what a worker has put into the system. It was decided in the Supreme Court Case Flemming V. Nestor that the government is not held under contract to return any of the money which one may put into the system on the basis that holding the government accountable for one’s contributions “Would deprive it of the flexibility … which it demands and which congress probably had in mind”[9] This is strange because worker should be allowed to benefit from the fruits of his own labor, and a social system such as this should uphold the good of all citizens. In this case, one may not expect to receive the same benefits as those persons in a state of financial need which he is supporting even if he were to come under the very same circumstances. In this case, the worker has a duty to pay into the system but is at times denied his right to any part of his past contributions. This system of work without pay (or of a duty without a right) is contrary to the teachings of The Catholic Church.

      Social Security should be a system which is financially sound. There should be no date which is the known point of its failure, no mismanaging of government funding in attempts to cover up the bankruptcy, and no excessive taxes to simply pass on the cost of lack of efficiency to American taxpayers. No matter what the government agency is, there is no excuse for irresponsible allocation or ineffective spending. This is especially true with an organization which directly protects the livelihood of millions of citizens. It is essential that this branch of government also be organized towards the proper goals and find the most effective ways of reaching those goals. The goal of social security should be directed towards the common good of all; to help facilitate each and every citizen to reach financial security. If there are better ways to reach this goal, than they should be integrated as swiftly as possible.

     The United States is the richest country in the world. Most individuals who will be receiving social security have had, in one way or another, some opportunity to be responsible and take their financial future into their own hands. A select few of the current beneficiaries, however, do need special attention and treatment. There are those poor who for one reason or another found themselves in situations beyond their control. These persons do deserve, and have the right to ask for, financial assistance from their government. It is a duty of the government to provide for its citizens who have no way of caring for themselves. This is shown clearly in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno when Pope Pius XI says:

     “For the nation, as it were, of the rich is guarded by its own defenses and is in less need of governmental protection, whereas the suffering multitude, without the means to protect itself relies especially on the protection of the State. Wherefore, since wageworkers are numbered among the great mass of the needy, the State must include them under its special care and foresight.”[10]

     Those who still have the option of working and planning towards their own retirement or insuring themselves against an emergency however, have their own duty towards themselves and dependents which should not be taken or given away. Although the parts of social security that deal with people in dire need should not be left solely to the private sphere, since these “cannot be adequately protected without the active participation of government”[11], the retirement plans could greatly benefit from privatization economically as well as morally. If the retirement portion of Social Security was privatized, it would encourage persons to act as better stewards of the wealth they are blessed with by holding each person accountable for their own actions.

     In 2001, the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security was created to find out what steps could be taken to reform social security. One of their findings was that;

     "Social Security will be strengthened if modernized to include a system of voluntary personal accounts… Personal accounts would permit individuals to seek a higher rate of return on their Social Security contributions, offering higher total expected benefits to individuals with accounts than those lacking them.”[12]

     In conclusion, reforming the system of contributions towards a voluntary system of individual retirement accounts not run but merely overseen and protected by the government will create a more reliable and functional Social Security system; it will help society insure itself by allowing its members to insure themselves. It will do so in a way which will better promote and actualize the goal which the act set out to achieve initially. It is absolutely necessary, however, that not only the end is realized but also that it is accomplished by the right means. The Catholic Church has laid the foundation of a path which is morally correct. Starting down this path would ensure that the reasoning behind the actions is consistent, and thereby show the way by which a resolution may come about for a system of social security by The State. A shift towards a more privatized system of social security would make the project of social insurance much more feasible and stable. It would take pressure off the state and allow the free market to do what it does best, while also raising benefits for those who do choose to be responsible for what they earn. By privatizing parts of social security that do not deal directly with the poor or those in some dire need, the country would be introducing a higher moral foundation acceptable by the Catholic Church. This new system would neither violate the rights of the workers or cause the state to overstep its boundaries. Pope Paul VI perfectly asserts this position when he put forth the optimal guidelines for state programs such as social security in his encyclical Populorum Progressio:

     “It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man's basic human rights”[13]


[1] "Social Security" (accessed November 3, 2010).

[2] The 2010 report of the board of trustees of the fedral old-age and survivors insurance and federal disability insurance trust funds. 111th Congress, 2d Session. House Document 111-137


[4] "Social Security Board of Trustees: Economic Downturn Leads to Worsening of Long-Range Financing Outlook," Social Security Administration website, May 12, 2009

[5] Frequently Asked Questions, Social Security Online,,

[6] Ratio of Covered Workers to Beneficiaries, Social Security Online,,

[7] Pope Pius XI , Quadragesimo Anno Encyclical Of Pope Pius Xi On Reconstruction Of The Social Order, May 15, 1931

[8] Pope Pius XI

[9] Supreme Court Case: Flemming vs. Nestor 363 U.S. 603

[10] Pope Pius XI

[11] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Justice, Peace, and Human Development – Social Security” February 1998,

[12] Strengthening Social Security and Creating Personal Wealth for All Americans," US Government Printing Office website, Dec. 2001

[13] Populorum Progressio Encyclical Of Pope Paul Vi On The Development Of Peoples, March 26, 1967


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