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Social Security overhaul is answer to inequality
Scripps Howard News Service

June 05, 2005

President Bush has the answer for them, if those worrying loudest about declining equality in income and social mobility would only listen.

They won't, of course, because that would require the kind of objective, non-partisan, non-ideological analysis to which they are mentally allergic. They would rather indulge in exaggerations, preach the sort of governmental intervention that would actually worsen things and spout inanities like this one spotted by me and at least one other writer in a series on inequality that ran in the New York Times.

"Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, but merit is at least partly class-based," the reporters wrote. "Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, the success is seen as earned."

In other words, it's a class thing to preach hard work to your children, to tell them that learning counts in this life, that doing things well has its rewards?

If it is, it shouldn't be, as Ben Franklin instructed us with pithy sayings more than two centuries ago, and as the comedian Bill Cosby, has been telling audiences in our own age. You don't have to be rich or a member of any particular group to inculcate values in your offspring that will lead them to productive, prosperous lives.

The reason you get such upside-down logic as in this Times story is the refusal of those on the left to grant what is obvious to almost everyone else: While bad luck, discrimination and a host of other factors beyond personal control may help keep you down and out, you're mostly the captain of your own economic fate in this land of extraordinary opportunity. To the left, it's blaming the victim to say as much, but the refusal to say it can have sad consequences for those who then engage more in finding excuses for their misery than taking the steps necessary to lift themselves out of it.

And don't suppose the poor are getting poorer. They've been getting richer, as even the Times story acknowledged. The after-tax income of those at the bottom went up by 9 percent from 1979 to 2001, the story says. What the story finds dismaying is that incomes went up more steeply for those in the middle and more steeply still for those at the top. The story cannot say definitively, however, that social mobility has been declining; it in fact tells us, as a writer for the American Spectator Online has also pointed out, that last year "only 37 members of Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980s."

The truth, as delineated in a variety of articles I've examined, seems to be that income inequality has not widened over recent decades even close to the extent claimed by those who would resolve the issue by making things worse for everyone, and that there are explanations for the gap having nothing to do with some vaguely implied social injustice. The agenda of those doing the most insistent complaining is pretty clear - to institute government programs that strip incentives from the marketplace, handicap small businesses, make private property more nearly public and overtax the so-called rich. Play that game, and what you get is equality sure enough: We will all be poor.

That's not to say, though, that there is nothing government can do to help those at the lowest income levels. What's needed is for Congress to get behind President Bush's proposal for individual Social Security retirement accounts.

These accounts would work by allowing individuals to take a percentage of what they put in the payroll tax for Social Security and instead invest it in a stocks-and-bonds plan. Because of the miracle of compound interest, even minimum-wage earners could have a substantial savings package by the time of retirement decades away, rather than only guaranteed monthly payments.

As think tank analysts have argued, this is money that can be invested in their communities or passed onto their children, savings of a size that they now cannot possibly accumulate otherwise but that could transform their own lives and those of following generations.

It's striking to me that many of the very same people who profess themselves terribly worried about income inequality in this land are those who want to leave untouched a system that currently transfers money from workers, including the poorest, to give to all Social Security recipients, including multimillionaires. They see no value in a Bush idea of increasing benefits for the poor at a higher rate than benefits for those who need them least or establishing the private accounts enabling low-paid employees to have something significant to show for their years of labor at the end of their work lives.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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