I had a great time yesterday morning at the Cesar Chavez charter school. I was at the Parkside campus, in Anacostia. The set-up was a little different than I expected. They had us each sit with a group of four or five students. The students took turns presenting their reports/proposals, and then we asked them questions about it, lead a discussion, and evaluated them. I heard from nine students overall. The teacher assigned them which policy proposal to defend, which made for a nice diversity of arguments. Many of them disagreed with what they were assigned and did a good job explaining why in the discussion section.
One of the things that I found fascinating was the difference between my first session of four students and my second session of five students in how they thought about the social insurance purpose of Social Security. The first group was adamant about this, to the point of being very skeptical about differentially taxing or providing benefits to wealthier beneficiaries or even raising the payroll tax cap (it wasn't clear to me when they were presenting that they all understood how the cap worked, though, but we went through that in the discussion). This did not surprise me - this was part of their Great Depression studies in their history class, so they had been talking a lot about the purpose of the program, which was social insurance.
The second session was very different - very willing to consider the redistributive aspects of Social Security, and take them into account when thinking about policy. There was one student that seemed to be familiar from outside school with the disability side of the program, and that colored a lot of the discussion.
I obviously consider Social Security a social insurance program, but of course I didn't propound on that or anything. In the first group we talked how we might address poverty issues if we don't do it through Social Security and the in the second group we talked about the same thing (if you couldn't address poverty through Social Security how would you do it?).
I did raise privatization in both groups (these kids are so young! they were in kindergarten when that was the hot topic!). They all shot that down pretty quickly even though many of them didn't even know what it was at first (and no, I didn't push them). I think the recent crash (which they were well aware of) had a lot to do with that. They saw right through the risks involved with moving money out of the trust fund. I actually had to coax them into thinking about why anyone would propose it in the first place - the point that there are actually years when financial markets do well too and that in the long run it does well!
We also got into discussions about COLA (the second session actually had a proposal around COLA - the first didn't). We didn't get into chained CPI or any of that - the proposal was just framed as "slowing the cost of living adjustment", but we did talk about the differences in the prices of the things that seniors spend on and the things that non-seniors spend on, and the implications for COLA. I've had an ongoing facebook discussion with a fellow GW alum about this - my view is that chaining is a great idea - the problem really is in the basket used (regular CPI probably isn't the best). I get fussy when progressives dump on chaining when the real problem is the basket. Chaining is a good idea.