June 29, 2000

June 29, 2000 | Commentary on Social Security

Social Insecurity

It's easy to envy the college graduates entering the workforce right now, with the booming economy producing an abundance of high-paying jobs. But in a way, they should be pitied.

Why? Because they're also stuck paying taxes into a Social Security system that could crush their retirement dreams if nothing is done to fix it.

It this sounds overly dramatic, consider these facts from The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis:

  • A middle-income single man born after 1966 can expect to get a "return" (after inflation) of less than 0.5 percent on his Social Security payroll taxes. In other words, the money he pays into Social Security during his likely 40-to-45-year career will increase in value, on average, just one-half of 1 percent per year. He'd almost be better off stuffing his retirement money in a piggy bank.
  • A single-income couple in their mid-20s, with two kids, can look forward to a 2.6 percent return on their Social Security taxes. That same money invested in super-safe Series I U.S. Savings Bonds would earn 3.4 percent after inflation.
  • By 2034, when many of today's 20- and 30-somethings are starting to look toward retirement, Social Security will be able to pay only 71 percent of promised benefits. That's like paying $20 at the gas pump, but getting only $14 worth of gas.

In short, Social Security is about as secure as a Styrofoam shark cage. Something needs to be done before the program's debt swims up and bites young workers in the posterior through even lower benefits or higher payroll taxes (which, incidentally, will have to jump from 12.4 percent to 18.1 percent by 2040 to pay full benefits).

There are many ideas out there to keep Social Security from tanking, and George W. Bush and Al Gore have weighed in with their own proposals. But there are three basic elements any Social Security reform plan needs:

Private Accounts. There's no better way for people to pursue their dreams than to let them take charge of their own money. And private investment isn't some untested theory cooked up in Think Tank Land: Workers in Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Poland and a dozen-and-a-half other countries are allowed to invest all or part of their retirement money and are getting substantial returns. British workers with retirement funds in the stock market earned 17.5 percent last year.

A Solid Guarantee. Defenders of the status quo like to say that reform will jeopardize benefits for current retirees. A properly designed system wouldn't allow that. Washington has a moral contract with seniors who grew up with the promise that Social Security would be there for them when they retired. Legislation now before Congress would give them a written guarantee as well.

Volunteers Only. No one should be required to invest in a personal account. If some people want the federal government to take care of their retirement as well as it handles the mail or surplus cheese, that's their choice. Forcing workers into an investment-based system would be as unjust as forcing them into a system headed for bankruptcy (in other words, the present system).

Remember: This debate isn't about the 84-year-old widow or 50-plus empty-nesters like my wife and me. It's about the 18-year-olds just starting their careers, their older siblings, and their 40-something parents. They are the ones who will bear the biggest burden if nothing is done. For their sake, let's hope Social Security is not simply put on life support by the timid souls in Washington.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Social Security

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