In the New York Times on Tuesday, David Brooks attributed Rick Santorum’s last-minute surge in the polls to the appeal of his family values platform with working-class whites. If Brooks is right, then those same voters should take a second look at Santorum’s position on Social Security, a program that represents the best of American family values.

Brooks argues that Santorum’s blue-collar background and his emphasis on “family and social solidarity,” rather than the Ayn Rand-style individualism of the GOP establishment, make him a good match for high school-educated whites. These working-class whites, Brooks writes, “sense that the nation has gone astray,” based on their belief that among other things “marriage is in crisis,” and America’s “work ethic is eroding.”

Brooks chooses to accept Santorum’s family values bona fides uncritically. But working-class supporters of Rick Santorum should know the truth.

If Santorum were really such a pro-family candidate, he would be a strident defender of Social Security, which helps keep families strong and encourages hard work. Santorum’s record shows that he is anything but.

As the Strengthen Social Security Campaign’s guide to the Republican candidates reveals, Santorum has supported privatizing Social Security. Here’s what he said in 2005, at the height of President Bush’s drive to privatize the program:

Personal retirement accounts provide individuals—not the government—with control and ownership. And they hold the promise of a greater return for future generations than what they are promised by today’s Social Security system. (The Hill, March 1, 2005)

The promise of higher returns in private Social Security accounts is standard conservative pablum, but it is not borne out by the facts. In 2008, 401(k)’s lost nearly 40 percent of their value. The family-oriented working-class voters that Santorum is apparently counting on would not have fared so well if Congress had followed Bush and Santorum’s lead back in 2005.

Contrary to what Santorum thinks, Social Security—in its current form—is the ultimate family program. Social Security helps maintain the bond between generations of family members. Benefits often prevent adults caring for aging parents from experiencing undue financial strain. Social Security is the majority of income or more for more than two-thirds of senior households. Even minor reductions in benefits could force these seniors to rely on their children more, who are often in their peaking earning years and struggling to support children of their own.

Social Security Survivors’ Insurance also helps keep family’s finances in order when the worst occurs unexpectedly. If a worker with children under age 16 dies unexpectedly, Social Security provides benefits equivalent to 75 percent of what the worker would have received in retirement to the spouse and children of that worker until the children are 18.

In fact, Social Security even reinforces the nation’s “eroding work ethic” that Brooks says working-class GOPers are so concerned about. You are only eligible for Social Security benefits if you have worked ten years and contributed to the program with payroll taxes. This provides an incentive to lower-income people to work by guaranteeing them retirement income no matter how low-paying their job. Social Security even rewards achievement, providing workers with larger benefits the more they have earned and contributed over their working years.

Skeptics might say: Sure Social Security is a family program, but do high school-educated Republicans know that? Don’t they scorn Social Security as much as any other government program?

No. Poll after poll shows that working-class Republicans are just as likely to support Social Security and oppose benefit cuts as Democrats. According to a July Pew poll, 53 percent of Republicans earning $30-$74,999 called keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits where they are a higher priority than reducing the budget deficit; 62 percent of Republicans making less than $30,000 said the same.

In fact, working-class voters overall (partisan breakdown not available), are more likely to oppose measures like raising the retirement age to 69. In a Lake Research Partners poll done on election eve 2010, 71 percent of non-college men and 76 percent of non-college women were opposed to raising the retirement age to 69—more than any other groups. This might be because nearly 6 out of 10 high school-educated workers aged 58 or older work in physically demanding jobs or dangerous working conditions, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Santorum, for his part, has supported raising the retirement age to 70 since 1994. “It is ridiculous that we have a retirement age in this country at age 65 today…Push it back to at least age 70,” he said. “I’d go even farther if I could, but I don’t think I could pass it.”

Daniel Marans

Daniel Marans