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02.25 The Only Way to Ruin Social Security

Friday, February 25th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Reprinted from The Hill's Congress Blog

Let's start with the obvious. Social Security is a beloved and vital program that needs changes. Politicians are afraid to touch it, and some its staunchest supporters say we don't need to talk about it now because its problems aren't all that serious. The irony is that not talking about Social Security -- and not touching it -- is the riskiest choice of all.

If you've been following the debate over Social Security, maybe you've seen the year 2037 popping up regularly. That's when the Social Security system empties the assets from its Trust Fund, at least based on current projections. In 2037, Social Security will only be able to pay 78 percent of promised benefits, not the full amount people are expecting (

It seems strange to us, but some people use this projection to argue that the situation with Social Security isn't so dire, and that we shouldn't be discussing it in the context of debate over the country's massive deficits (including columnist Bob Herbert,, or Some argue that any discussion of Social Security's finances is just a stalking horse for a radical conservative plan to get rid of the program in favor of private accounts.

But there are multiple reasons to be alarmed by these numbers and multiple reasons to start talking about how to stabilize Social Security's funding now, not later:

Reason No. 1: "Having money" in the Trust Fund isn't as reassuring as it sounds.

For decades now, Social Security has been running a surplus, and the government has been using the extra revenue to pay other bills and avoid raising taxes. It's been putting special Treasury bonds into the Trust Fund in return. The government is obligated to pay the $2.6 trillion in special Treasury bills -- no doubt about that. That's only fair. The people who have been paying into the Social Security system for decades will get their checks. Unfortunately the Congressional Budget Office says Social Security will need to start dipping into the Trust Fund this year, and the money to cover the Treasury bills (estimated to be some $600 billion over the next decade) has come from somewhere. Since the government doesn't have the cash on hand, it will need to cut other spending, borrow even more money, or raise other taxes. This means there'll be even more pressure on the budget.

No. 2: Whatever we do to stabilize Social Security will work better if we do it earlier, and don't wait until the last minute.

If you believe the best solution is for higher income workers to pay Social Security taxes on more of their salaries (In 2011, Social Security taxes stop when your income hits $106,800), then it's better to start while most of the huge baby boom generation is still working and in the peak of their earning years. If you believe in trimming benefits for affluent retirees or pushing back the retirement age, then it's much better to let people know what to expect early, while they have time to make adjustments in their own planning. When it comes to retirement, you can put most of us into the "please don't surprise me" camp.

No. 3: A 20 percent drop in Social Security payments would be devastating.

The idea that Social Security could still pay 78 percent of what it's promised to pay shouldn't comfort anyone. Using current numbers as an analogy, the average payment would fall from around $1,200 a month to less than $1,000 -- that's $12,000 a year. ( Since low-income seniors get about 80 percent of their income from Social Security, the effect on them would be disastrous. Social Security makes up more than half of the income for seniors overall, so middle-income retirees would take a hit as well.

No. 4: 2037 isn't that far away.

True, it's not right around the corner, but as the saying goes, time flies. Most people can envision the time a couple of decades away when their small children finish college or when they finally pay off their mortgage. Most of us, in fact, make all sort of financial decisions with these future events in mind. And realistically, the country will start feeling the pinch much sooner than that, as the government works to come up with the money needed to repay the Social Security Trust Fund.

So if you care about Social Security and want it to remain strong, here's the dilemma: Are we going to start making the changes that will put it on a sound financial path, or are we going to keep procrastinating? Being seduced by the juggling act of trust-fund accounting carries real risks. If we let this problem go for another decade, all that's going to do is to let a relatively manageable problem grow into a terrible one. Right now, we can still implement relatively acceptable fixes, such as raising taxes on higher income workers or recalculating benefits for future retirees to protect lower-income Americans while asking more of Americans with means. Changes like this could take this problem off the table for a generation. But if we convince ourselves that the problem isn't so serious and wait until 2037 is breathing down our necks, the fixes will be big, jarring, and probably unfair.

So are we going to let 2037 be the year we break our promise to Americans who have worked hard for decades and counted on this country's sense of fair play? If we do, 2037 will be the year Americans should hang their heads in shame.

© 2011 Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, authors of Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis

Scott Bittle, author of Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis, is the executive editor of, twice nominated for the Webby Award as best political site. He is also an award-winning journalist.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis, is the Executive Vice President of Public Agenda, has more then 20 years of experience understanding public attitudes on a broad range of issues. She has also written for various publications such as USA Today, Education Week, and the Huffington Post.


02.24 Unrest, Instability & Oil Insecurity

Thursday, February 24th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The unrest in Libya is rattling the world oil markets – but is it enough to put dependence on foreign oil back on the agenda in the United States?

The waves of change sweeping the Middle East, and the bloody uprisings in Libya in particular, have driven oil prices up to $110 per barrel, a level that hasn't been seen since the price spike of 2008. More importantly, the changes are again raising questions about American dependence on foreign oil, with U.S. leaders raising questions about the national security and economic implications of getting more than half our oil from overseas.

When Public Agenda examined this in our Energy Learning Curve survey, we found eight in 10 Americans worried that our economy is too dependent on oil (47 percent said they worried "a lot") and that oil dependence will involve us in conflicts in the Middle East (43 percent worried "a lot").

But it will take more than worry to address this problem; it's going to require grappling with the choices involved in actually changing how we use energy. The United States hasn't been able to meet all its own oil needs since 1957, so this problem is well-entrenched. Almost all the oil we use is for transportation, which means this is closely tied to how much Americans drive, and what we drive.

Yet our Energy Learning Curve also found a lot of public resistance to anything that increases the cost of driving, and very low knowledge levels on some key facts, such as how much of the world's oil is actually in the United States (about 2.5 percent).

We do have options for changing how we use energy, but they require some basic national choices: what do we want to use to fuel our cars? What kind of infrastructure do we need to support that? How much do we want to spend to do it? And since no energy source is perfect, all of our options require making tradeoffs, in one form or another.

There are some problems, even public policy decisions, that can be left to the experts. Energy isn't one of them. It's too interwoven into our daily lives. If we are to seize this moment and change the nation's course on energy, leaders are going to have to present the public with realistic options – and a clear sense of what it'll take to get there.


02.16 The Budget Challenge, In 500 Words or Less

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Francie Grace

One of the first, widespread reactions to the budget President Obama proposed this week was this: it's avoiding the real issue. That's because the president didn't propose solutions to the basic problems driving our fiscal problems, namely, the health care costs and aging population that will drive up spending on Medicare and Social Security.

But, the president's advisers were also fairly open about why they did this, which is that they don't think Washington is ready to tackle those problems. Better to propose spending cuts and tax increases in other areas, and see if that provides openings for the two parties to move forward. The president did suggest a bipartisan effort to work on Social Security, and set out his views on what would be acceptable.

Polls show that many Americans are fundamentally uninformed or conflicted about key aspects of the budget problem, which makes this a daunting problem for elected officials on both sides of the aisle. But if the country isn't ready to think about these problems, it needs to get ready, because the problem is closer than most people think. In as little as 10 years, our national debt could be as big as our entire economy. Sooner than that, government auditors say, more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the national debt. Allowing this problem to play out won't help our fiscal situation, or our economy.

Getting our deficit and national debt under control requires setting priorities and making tradeoffs, and it takes time for the public to grapple with those questions. The knowledge needed isn't that complicated – in fact Public Agenda authors Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle managed to "Tackle the National Debt in 500 Words or Less." The Our Fiscal Future initiative, in which Public Agenda is a partner, also sums up choices and challenges quickly.

The public can make choices on this problem, if our leaders will let them, and if they can tame their tendency to try to spin the facts to suit their own political aims. We will all have to live with the consequences of what the country does or doesn't do as we grapple with the budget and the debt. As political leaders in Washington edge toward decisions, we'd urge them to remember that the public has a role to play here, and the American people have the right to understand this debate and take part in it.


02.16 In Their Shoes - Students Teaching Us About Higher Ed

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed wondered "Where Are the Student Voices?" when it comes to community colleges. "This paucity of on-the-ground knowledge is a prescription for policy disaster, for the history of social policy is littered with reforms that failed because local knowledge was ignored," the authors say. "How, we wonder, can legislators and educators know what kinds of interventions to create without hearing from the very people they are trying to help?"

We agree. And we can shed some light on the question.

In our With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them survey, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we asked young Americans who started college, but weren't able to complete their degrees, what kinds of obstacles they faced. What they told us was very different from what many policymakers assume. Nearly all of the young people we surveyed recognized the value of a college degree is in today's work force. Relatively few told us that they left college because they didn't like it, or, didn't think it was worth the money.


02.10 Getting The Debt Debate In Perspective

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Francie Grace

We'll be hearing a lot about the federal budget in the next week – but how much of the debate will actually help Americans figure out their choices?

President Obama will be formally submitting his budget on Monday, with proposals from Republicans already circulating. But with all the highly wonky plans and counter-plans, and the inside-the-Beltway debates over debt ceilings and resolutions, what gets lost is that the budget debate is about setting priorities – and the public needs to play a role in setting them.

Projections show the national debt will be nearly as big as our entire economy in as little as 10 years, and that more than 90 cents of every tax dollar will be taken up by rising costs for Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and interest on the money we've already borrowed. If we're going to change those projections, it'll help to act sooner rather than later. Yet we're also facing a frail economy, high unemployment and lots of needs the government has to meet.

Fortunately, we've got some resources to guide you through the blizzard of billion-dollar numbers you'll be hearing in the next week:


02.10 Teaching Teachers: How Well Are Colleges Meeting The Challenge?

Thursday, February 10th, 2011 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

It's an old question in education reform, and an important one: how well do we teach our teachers?

U.S. News and World Report, already a player in the education world because of its popular and controversial college guide, has plunged into the debate with its plan to issue ratings of teachers colleges. A number of schools of education, citing concerns about how the magazine will reach its conclusions, have said they won't participate.

In Public Agenda's Lessons Learned survey, we found most first-year teachers gave their training programs good marks. Nearly 7 in 10 said their training on direct instruction helped them "a lot" and 6 in 10 said that what they learned about classroom management helped "a lot." Overall 8 in 10 felt they were prepared for their first classroom (42 percent said "very prepared).

However, by the new teachers' own account, there are places where their instruction fell down. For example, three-quarters of new teachers said their training covered dealing with diverse classrooms, but only 39 percent said it helped them "a lot" once they were in their own classroom.

Moreover, new middle and high school teachers were more likely to criticize their training for putting too much emphasis on theory compared to the practical demands of the classroom. More than half (53 percent) of new high school teachers say their preparation was too theoretical, while just 40 percent of new elementary teachers say this.

The survey also raised questions about the kind of support brand-new teachers get from colleagues and administrators when they take on their first classroom, especially new high school teachers. Just a quarter of new high school teachers (26 percent) said they get excellent advice on lesson plans and teaching techniques, compared to 39 percent of elementary school teachers who said the same.

There is also a 10-point difference on the advice they said they got about handling unmotivated students: 31 percent of high school teachers say they get excellent advice, compared to 41 percent of grade school teachers.

There are dissatisfied, struggling teachers in America, beyond question, and they're an uncomfortably large group. In our Teaching for a Living survey, we found 4 in 10 teachers are "disheartened" about their jobs. More than half teach in low-income schools, and they're more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and an undue focus on testing. Their concerns are not so much about their training as they are about working conditions once they are on the job.

We need to produce the best possible teachers, with the best possible training. Second-rate training certainly won't produce first-class teachers. But the powerful frustration we've found among teachers in surveys focuses less on their preparation for the classroom than on what they found, and what they need, once they arrive.


01.28 Would Getting the Economy On Track Give Us A Free Pass Out of the Federal Budget Mess?

Friday, January 28th, 2011 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from Dallas South News

It looks like the country might finally be gearing up to tackle our massive federal deficits and growing federal debt. If history is any guide, serious debate about unpleasant things like cutting popular programs and raising taxes will be accompanied by plenty of people hawking miracle cures that will take away our pain.

So it’s no surprise that a lot of commentators, on both the left and the right, say that the real answer to the deficit and national debt is to fire up the economy and “grow our way out of it,” with some even calling economic growth “the miracle deficit cure.”

There’s hardly anything more popular than prosperity. Business people thrive when the economy is growing; it creates jobs and rising incomes so workers like it too. If you’re a comic book fan, even super-villains like Lex Luthor and the Penguin enjoy the benefits. With their far-flung business dealings, they pretty much pursued a pro-growth policy. For them, a growing economy meant there’s that much more to steal.

The truth is that we do need healthy economic growth to balance the budget. The other truth is that a growing economy simply won’t be enough.

If the economy grows, the government takes in more tax revenue, because businesses are more profitable and people are earning more money. Plus, if the overall economy is growing faster than the government is piling up debt, then the national debt keeps becoming a smaller and less troublesome part of the overall economic pie. Think of it like swimming with the tide, rather than against it. This is exactly what happened after World War II, when the national debt was at its historical peak in comparison to the whole economy. The post-war boom played a huge role in getting the debt down.

So why isn’t economic growth enough? The first catch is that all the projections say the national debt is going to grow faster than the economy, not the other way around.

Because of the double whammy of rising health care costs and an aging population, spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will grow faster than the overall economy will. Without changes, spending on these programs will grow so fast that there’s no way the economy could keep up.

What’s striking is how many analysts agree on this. That’s the assessment of all three of the government’s budget agencies: The White House Office of Management and Budget (under both Bush and Obama), the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. It’s stated flatly in the Financial Report of the United States Government, the government’s equivalent of a corporate annual report. Independent experts tell exactly the same story: “No reasonably foreseeable rate of economic growth would overcome this structural deficit,” concluded the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States, a panel set up by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration. Those projections are the reason why all these groups consider the federal budget “unsustainable.”

There’s also the irritating fact of life that experts can’t agree on what we should do to unleash all this growth anyway. In fact, you can easily find an economist or a think tank who will argue that almost anything will expand the economy. Anything.

“Cut taxes! Cut regulation! Get government out of the way! It’ll spur growth!” say the conservatives.

“Spend more! Crack down on Wall Street! Close the income gap! Invest in education, and infrastructure. It’ll spur growth!” say the liberals.

And even with a growing economy, we still need to get spending in line with revenues. You know all those athletes and Hollywood stars who make millions and still wind up in bankruptcy court? Even when the money pours in, you still have to make ends meet.

We absolutely need economic growth. We need it to help solve our fiscal problems, and we need it for the jobs and prosperity all of us want. But there’s a big difference between “we can’t solve our budget problems if the economy doesn’t grow” and “if the economy grows everything will be fine.”

In the end, we have to make some decisions – - like deciding what we want the government to do for us, and what we’re willing to pay for it.

Scott Bittle, author of Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis, is the executive editor of, twice nominated for the Webby Award as best political site. He is also an award-winning journalist.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Where Does the Money Go? Rev Ed: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis, is the Executive Vice President of Public Agenda, has more then 20 years of experience understanding public attitudes on a broad range of issues. She has also written for various publications such as USA Today, Education Week, and the Huffington Post.

For more information please visit


01.27 Science Ed: Waiting Too Long, Settling For Too Little?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

No sooner did President Obama call for a new focus on math and science education in the State of the Union than new test scores showed how big a challenge this will be. The new edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released the day after the speech, showed only 21 percent of American high school seniors are "proficient" at science.

This isn't the first time American political and business leaders have sounded the alarm about students' poor performance in math and science, particularly compared to other countries. There's a whole range of theories about why this might be. The most recent one is that Chinese students perform better because Chinese parents are more strict and goal-oriented than American ones – the so-called "tiger mother" theory.
Whatever the virtues and weaknesses of that theory, we'd point out that in science, American students also lag behind nations like Hungary and Russia, so that can't be the whole explanation.

In Public Agenda's surveys, what we've found suggests the real issue for American parents may be complacency and priorities.

Most parents we surveyed want their children to take advanced science in high school (54 percent) – but even more (70 percent) also say science can wait until middle and high school.

In addition, most parents may also believe their children are doing better than they really are in this area. About half (52 percent) say that the amount of math and science their child is getting is "fine the way it is."

The way to change those attitudes may be to talk about opportunity – particularly the opportunities that might be missed if Americans don't do better in this area. Some 84 percent believe there will be a lot more jobs in the future for those with math and science skills, and even more (88 percent) say those skills are an advantage in getting into college.

When it comes to improving math and science education, parenting may matter – but parents' priorities may matter more.


01.20 A More Civil Debate, But Was It More Helpful?

Thursday, January 20th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

This week's congressional debate on repealing health care reform was significantly more civil than the previous fights on this issue (with at least one notable exception). But was it more helpful to the public?

Certainly the more measured tone, part of the fallout from the Arizona shootings at a congressional event, was a relief after the hyper-partisanship of last year's debate. There's also growing momentum for a symbolic gesture of civility next week, namely having members of the two parties sit mixed together at the State of the Union instead of on opposite sides of the aisle.

Civility is a crucial first step for a more effective debate. At the same time, the House health care debate showed how the current process isn't helpful to the public.

One of the problems with the health care debate of 2009-10 wasn't just that it was angry and partisan – although it certainly was – but that it was also hyper-technical. Health care is a complicated issue, and there was little effort spent on trying to make it easier for the public to understand what their options are, or what the unknowns might be.

This week's debate was a chance to revisit some of these questions. But instead the House and the policy community spent much of their time debating the accuracy of Congressional Budget Office projections on the law's impact on the deficit and the economy. That's important, but it's also a technical argument that the public isn't prepared to judge for themselves – particularly when Republicans and Democrats have such radically different interpretations. (These summaries from on the economic and deficit implications are helpful, as is the Five Things You Need to Know About Health Care and the National Debt from Choosing Our Fiscal Future).

If any health care reform is to succeed, the public needs a sense of what the alternatives really are. If not this plan, what? What are the pros and cons, what are the tradeoffs? How does this health care bill stack up against other ideas – and against a fiscally unsustainable status quo?

These are crucial factors if the public is going to make sound judgments about anything. They didn't get them in the first health care debate, and they didn't get them from this week's debate, either. A more civil tone can help that more sophisticated discussion happen – but it's not enough by itself.


01.13 Tragedy, Civility, and the Public Discourse We Need

Thursday, January 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

We may never completely untangle the reasons behind last weekend's shootings in Arizona. The slayings of six people at a congressional event, including a nine-year-old girl, have prompted a national debate over whether hyperpartisan, overheated political rhetoric pushed the accused gunman over the edge. President Obama himself called for a more civil dialogue at the memorial service yesterday.

But the truth is that our system of political discussion is broken, even if it played no role whatsoever in this horrible event. Part of the evidence for that is the fact that so many in politics and the media immediately thought that inflamed rhetoric could have played a part in the Arizona tragedy. That says as much or more about the state of our debate – and the people who largely shape it -- as it does about the mind of Jared Lee Loughner. So many in public life apparently already suspected that some day, somewhere, someone might snap because of the state of political debate – even, it seems, as they participated in that debate every day.

Life is not a civics lesson. Passion, even anger, are an essential part of public debate. Demonization of your opponents isn't. The calls for greater civility coming from all quarters are entirely right, and we agree.

Yet a harsh tone is only part of what's wrong with our public discourse.

  • Our model of "an informed public" isn't working. We do a reasonably good job of alerting citizens to problems, but we do an appalling job of helping them understand how, realistically, we can solve them.
  • Rather than helping citizens understand issues, much of the news consists of experts talking to each other, scoring points off each other rather than really explaining anything. As a nation, we do very little to help people actually follow the discussion.
  • As more people choose their news sources to match their preconceptions, there aren’t enough venues where typical citizens from different walks of life can exchange their ideas and perspectives. When Public Agenda helps communities organize conversations on important issues, participants routinely tell us how fascinating and important these kinds of discussions are. They want to know when they can do it again.

None of those problems would ever cause violence. But every day, in large ways and small, they keep us from solving our shared problems.

We need greater civility, and the fact that so many in public life are re-examining the tone of the debate is a positive thing. We hope it takes root. But civility is only a start in having the dialogue we want – and need – as a nation.


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