March 14, 2001

March 14, 2001 | Commentary on Social Security

Social Security Reform: No Quick Fix

In a sense, President Bush should consider himself lucky as he appoints a high-level commission to study Social Security reform over the next several months. Polls show a clear majority of Americans support plans that would let them invest a portion of their Social Security taxes, so he won't encounter nearly as much difficulty as past politicians who dared touch the one-time "third rail" of American politics.

But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Expect to hear plenty of that old-time scare-mongering in the weeks ahead from lawmakers who seem ready to break out wooden stakes and silver bullets at the mere mention of personal retirement accounts. They'll keep Social Security's current surpluses locked away, sure, but they offer little more to keep the program solvent once the baby boom generation starts retiring and begins drawing benefits.

Members of the president's commission can save themselves a lot of grief by ensuring that their proposal meets at least the following six criteria:

1. The benefits of current retirees and those near retirement must be protected. Washington has a moral contract with those who currently receive Social Security retirement benefits, as well as with those who are so close to retirement that they have no other options for building a retirement nest egg. Unfortunately for seniors, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled they have no legal right to their benefits. This must be corrected. Any real reform plan must guarantee in law that seniors will receive every cent the government has promised them.

2. The "rate of return" on a worker's Social Security taxes must be improved. Today's workers receive poor returns on their Social Security payroll taxes. For example, an average two-earner couple in their early 30s will receive about 1.2 percent on their retirement taxes from Social Security. Many just entering the workforce can expect even less. Compare that to the 3.4 percent paid on super-safe Series I U.S. Savings Bonds. Meaningful reform must provide a better retirement income without increasing Social Security taxes.

3. Workers should be allowed to allocate some of their payroll tax dollars to personal accounts that are part of Social Security. Using only promised surpluses to fund Social Security reform is not sufficient. If the government overspends -- as it has done routinely in recent decades -- working Americans will lose their chance for a secure retirement. Instead, Congress should divert a portion of the taxes that Americans currently pay for Social Security retirement benefits into personal retirement accounts. It should use the surplus to cover the short-term transition costs associated with this reform.

4. Americans must be able to use Social Security to build a nest egg for the future. Today's Social Security system provides a stable level of retirement income and protects against catastrophic losses, but it doesn't let workers accumulate cash savings to fulfill their own retirement goals or to pass on to their heirs. This gap needs to be filled with a system of personal retirement accounts that are financed with part of their Social Security taxes.

5. Personal retirement accounts must guarantee an adequate minimum income. Seniors must be able to count on a reasonable and predictable level of monthly income, regardless of what happens in the investment markets. In reforming the system, Congress should ensure that every American who chooses to have a personal retirement account receives a retirement income at least equal to what he or she would receive from the traditional Social Security program.

6. Participation in the new accounts must be voluntary. No one should be forced into a system of personal retirement accounts. Instead, current workers must be free to choose between today's Social Security and one that offers personal retirement accounts. Americans who choose to divert part of their payroll tax into a personal retirement account should give up part of their traditional Social Security benefits in return for the higher earnings of a personal account.

No one is suggesting we implement a system of personal accounts overnight. But it can be phased in over time, as many other nations -- including Britain, Mexico and Australia -- have shown, and we have the benefit of large surpluses to make the transition easier.

The alternatives? Higher payroll taxes or smaller benefits. And any politician crazy enough to propose either one better have plenty of wooden stakes and silver bullets on hand.

David John is a senior policy analyst for Social Security at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) , a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

David C. John Senior Research Fellow in Retirement Security and Financial Institutions
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

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