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Can You Solve the Social Security Challenge?

Online game aims to engage public in crafting plans to protect the program

spinner image cartoon screenshot from the American Academy of Actuaries' Social Security Challenge web app showing that the Social Security trust fund will become depleted
Screenshot from the American Academy of Actuaries' Social Security Challenge web app.
Courtesy American Academy of Actuaries

The neighborhood grocer thinks survivor benefits are too low. An office worker believes spousal benefits are too high. At the gym, workout buddies weigh the fairness of increasing taxes on high earners, while the TV station hosts a debate on raising the retirement age.

All over “Townsville,” from the post office to the park to the coffee shop, the fictional denizens are focused on a very real issue — the looming shortfall in Social Security funding and how to avert it.

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The imaginary city is the setting for the Social Security Challenge, a web app developed by the American Academy of Actuaries to help inform the public about, well, the Social Security challenge, and to engage it in crafting a solution.

According to the latest projections from Social Security’s trustees, the trust funds that pay out benefits will deplete their cash reserves by 2034 unless Congress acts to stabilize the program’s finances by reducing costs, boosting revenue or a combination of both. Absent that, Social Security will only be able to cover about 80 percent of scheduled benefit payments from the payroll taxes it collects each year.

In the Social Security Challenge, you tour Townsville and listen as locals air their concerns about the program’s future and weigh various proposals to restore its fiscal health and preserve its social purpose. They earnestly address how it could affect them and their families if Congress opts to reduce (or expand) benefits, tighten eligibility, hike payroll taxes, tinker with the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) or enact other changes.

The tour culminates with the challenge of the app’s title, an opportunity for players to select from among nearly three dozen policy options to create their own reform plan. Using the latest data from Social Security’s own actuaries, the tool tracks how much your choices, individually and in combination, would close the fiscal gap.

Neither the app nor the actuaries’ group takes a position on any reform option or set of options. Rather, amid what has been an often partisan debate over how to shore up Social Security, they aim to show there are alternatives to “the extremes of ‘benefits are going to be cut 20 percent’ or ‘taxes are going to be raised significantly,’ ” says Linda Stone, a longtime corporate actuary who serves as the academy’s senior pension fellow.

“Showing that range of options, having people engaged in understanding the system so they understand the levers that can be changed to get to the solvency issue, we thought, would be beneficial,” she says. 

Goodbye, game show; hello, town hall

The academy, which includes nearly 20,000 actuarial professionals and advises policymakers on pensions, risk management and financial security issues, unveiled the Social Security Challenge in March as a revamp of the Social Security Game, a tool that debuted on its website in 2005. 

The older model also let players build a package of policies to address the program’s fiscal crunch but had a different, game show-style interface.

“That’s part of what we wanted to get away from. We thought that had a nuance of, it’s a game and you win,” Stone says. 

The new version includes a broader menu of policy options, reflecting the variety of proposals floated by lawmakers in recent years. At the same time, the actuaries looked for a more accessible approach to the educational aspects of the game. That led to the creation of Townsville and a user experience that’s less policy primer and more everyday folks talking it out. 

“I think it really translated it to the stakes for ordinary people,” says Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It didn’t feel — no offense to actuaries, but it’s not as if you were reading a dense actuarial report or something like that. You were hearing from typical people and how these issues impact them.” 

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“We're trying to make it accessible. We were trying not to make it too wonky,” Stone says. The game’s home page links to the academy’s Social Security issue briefs and other policy resources “for those that want to get into that level of detail,” she adds, “but this is for the general public.”

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Good timing

Though work on updating the app began about a year ago, the revamped tool went live weeks after President Joe Biden’s boisterous sparring with congressional Republicans over Social Security at his State of the Union address magnified the political spotlight on the solvency issue. 

“I think the fact that this has become more in the public debate is fortunate in that our resource is there to help people try to get a better understanding of what they might be hearing in that public discourse,” Stone says. “It is good timing from that perspective.”

An academy spokesperson says the organization promotes the Social Security Challenge through its social media channels, media interviews and meetings with student groups, and it urges members of Congress to share it with their constituents. The academy has also shared the app with nonprofits and think tanks.

Among those in the latter community who think, talk and write about Social Security for a living, the reviews have been positive. 

“I loved it,” Romig says. “I thought it was really fun, and I thought they did a great job breaking down many different issues at stake in pretty simple language but also really fair terms.” (She adds that she played it with her 12-year-old son, who “really enjoyed it, too. He thought that it was very accessible.”)

"I think it could be a very helpful tool in getting Americans to think a little bit more holistically about the Social Security challenge,” says Emerson Sprick, senior economic analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“One thing that I think it really does add is a dose of optimism,” Sprick says, “that this is a big problem, but it is one that can be solved if lawmakers approach it with a holistic package of reforms that includes a lot of different changes and steps away from the red lines that characterize the current political rhetoric surrounding this issue.”

How much Townsville contributes to that real-life conversation will largely depend on “how well the actuaries get this in front of people,” he says. “It just depends on how many people you can engage. And that’s going to be a much bigger challenge, I think, than creating the simulation in the first place.”

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