The Old, Young and Middle

October 9, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week I’ll compare inflation-adjusted or real spending on Social Security and K-12 education with wage growth. I was surprised to learn that the number of people in both programs are the same. I’ll begin with Friday’s employment report because the market’s reaction to it indicates the erratic – but rational – thinking that higher inflation can trigger. Job gains of 263,000 were in line with expectations, but the unemployment rate went down by .1% because people stopped looking for jobs. Three years ago a .1% move would be discarded as a survey error. The unemployment rate is derived from a survey of households, not businesses, and often exaggerates any move up or down. In today’s volatile market, traders are skittish, employing algorithms that don’t care about the extent of a move, only whether it is up or down. Short term options trading leverages both money and time and they are now almost half of the options market. A minus sign might trigger a sell, a plus sign a buy. The number after that plus or minus is less important. A trader might have taken a position forecasting a slight uptick in the unemployment rate. No increase or a decrease = sell and minimize losses. This is reactive trading, not economic evaluation.

This week’s ADP report of private job gains showed a decline of 7,000. Averaged together job gains were only 116,000 in September and has shown a distinct downward response to the Fed’s raising of interest rates. The historical average of the two surveys has been the more accurate after revisions. More disappointing for workers is that wage growth has been more than 3% below the inflation rate.

While workers’ wages are not keeping up with inflation, social security recipients will likely get a COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) raise of about 8.6% this year. By law, the COLA calculation compares this year’s average third quarter CPI to last year’s third quarter average. September’s CPI report will be released Thursday, October 13th, finalizing this year’s 3rd quarter and the final adjustment percentage. It will be the largest increase since 1981’s adjustment of 11.3%, according to the Social Security Administration (2022).

An eternal theme in the Republican platform is the privatization of Social Security before it goes broke. A few weeks before the election, some Republicans will undoubtedly use the COLA adjustment to call for Social Security privatization. They will claim that higher payments will inevitably lead to the insolvency of the fund. Retirees will get partial payments or no payments.

Former House Speaker and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan once asked Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Fed and a fellow conservative, a leading question meant to demonstrate the insolvency of Social Security. Wouldn’t personal retirement accounts (privatized Social Security accounts) make the retirement system more financially secure? In his dry tone, Greenspan answered that “there is nothing to prevent the Federal Government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody” (C-Span, 2005). Ryan, a champion of privatization, was disappointed in the answer.

Why then do we have the trust funds? The Social Security system is “Pay-Go.” The taxes of current workers pay for the benefits to retired workers. When the program was created almost 90 years ago, President Roosevelt (FDR) thought that Republicans – and some conservative southern Democrats – would be more hesitant to cancel the program if funds were – on paper at least – dedicated to the program and called “insurance.” Republicans challenged the program up to the Supreme Court on the basis that the Federal government had no Constitutional right to force people to pay into a retirement program. The Court ruled that, even if the program was called “insurance,” it was a tax and the government had the right to tax incomes. Read the 16th Amendment. The unfairness in the system was that the first generation of recipients paid little into the system for the benefits they received when they retired. Today, the average retiree receives $1673 a month, or $20K per year (SSA, 2022). Let’s compare that to spending on K-12 education.

The U.S. has about the same number of K-12 students as it does retirees who are collecting Social Security – a bit more than 50 million. Social Security is a federal program. K-12 education is funded at the state and local level with only 8% federal funding. The federal government has deep pockets. State and local governments have shallow pockets with many demands from their constituents. In 2019, federal, state and local governments spent $765B, or $15,120 per pupil in 2019 (Hanson, 2022). That’s 75% of what we spend on retirees. Have we shifted too many resources to seniors from children?

Retirees have paid Social Security taxes for their entire working lives and feel that those funds have been set aside for them. The federal government doesn’t have to provide goods and services to retirees. Even the task of computing and remitting Social Security taxes is done by businesses – by law and for free. The accounting is a business expense. State and local governments must provide real resources. These include schools and facilities, teachers and lunches, school nurses and security guards.

Education competes with other essential services. The 2008 financial crisis and the slow recovery “put a hurt” in most state and local budgets. Since 2008, the national average of real per pupil funding has increased only 6% (Hanson, 2022). For most of that time, inflation has been low. Imagine what a sustained period of high inflation might do. Let’s look back at the last period – the 1970s and early 1980s.

Higher inflation wakes us up. Even when inflation is low, workers are squeezed, having to support children and retirees. Inflation increases the budget squeeze so workers pay closer attention to personal budgets and public policies. In the high inflation decade of the 1970s the public discovered that income and real estate taxes were not indexed to inflation. Rising wages caused people to go into higher tax brackets even when their real wages had barely moved. Tax laws were changed in the 1980s.

Ever rising real estate taxes in California made it difficult for retired homeowners on fixed incomes to stay in their homes. A growing taxpayer revolt rose up in many states. In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13 which limited annual increases in taxes. Real estate taxes are the largest source of funding for schools so today California spends 10% less than the national average on K-12 students. Will today’s higher inflation provoke some sweeping policy changes?

Knowing past history, the Fed can’t let high inflation get entrenched in the economy for long. People will demand policy and institutional changes. Next week I’ll look at consumer psychology during high inflation periods.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

C-Span. (2005, March 3). User Clip: Alan Greenspan answers Paul Ryan. C-Span. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from

Hanson, Melanie. “U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics”, June 15, 2022,

Social Security Administration. (2022). Cost of Living Adjustments. Cost-Of-Living Adjustments. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from

SSA: Social Security Administration. (2022, August). Monthly Statistical Snapshot, August 2022. Research, Statistics & Policy Analysis. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from



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