Critics of entitlement programs such as Social Security are fond of calling them Ponzi Schemes. This is somewhat accurate, but it is ineffective because Ponzi Schemes usually collapse fairly quickly, and these programs have not collapsed over many years. I do wonder if this contributes to people not taking it very seriously. That argument is used by some calmer environmentalists, that the insistence on predicting catastrophic consequences, and right soon, have numbed the general public from responding to a real problem. In both cases, we've been hearing about it for a while and we don't see catastrophe.
Well, maybe. Overreaction may make it worse, but I don't see where underreaction about SS has done the trick either. People don't worry about things in the far future much, however excited the people around them get.
On average, people get about 2.5 the amount they paid in to Social Security back, even after accounting for inflation, and the rate of payback is quicker than the rate of contribution. As some receive above the average, some must be below - unmarried people who die before receiving a penny of it, for example. People who work 40 years and die 10 years after retiring are just about a wash.
So it is a Ponzi Scheme, just a slow one. Tweaks like later retirement age are making it less of one, but longer life expectancy has overwhelmed that. If we had started in 1980 raising the retirement age one month every year we'd be a lot closer - but that was never going to happen, and even if it had, politicians would "temporarily" suspend that whenever there were hard times. Or easy times.
Update: In response to Terri's question I went looking for a more thorough article, and found one over at Politifact. What You Paid Compared To What You Get. It undermines my point a bit, but I still like it.