April 26, 2002 | Commentary on Social Security
That's because they're convinced the latest financial report
from the program's trustees can be used to club their opponents. It
shows Social Security won't dip into the red ink quite as soon as
the trustees once estimated: Absent reform, it will begin paying
out more in benefits than it raises in taxes in 2017, not 2016. And
the program won't go broke until 2041, not 2038.
So, some newspaper columnists ask, why the fuss about fixing
Social Security now? According to them, President Bush and a
bipartisan group of congressional reformers ought to trash their
plans to let workers invest part of their Social Security money in
super-safe portfolios of blue-chip stocks and bonds -- because if
there's no crisis, there's no need for reform. Some minor tinkering
will do the trick.
But a sensible look at the numbers reveals two rock-solid
reasons to pursue reform: It must be done, and it will make
retirement better for workers.
Reforms must be made because, although the hammer may fall
slightly later than previously estimated, it will fall
significantly harder. The trustees' report states that the
"long-term unfunded liability" of Social Security -- 50-cent words
for "what we'll owe, but won't have" -- has climbed 15 percent
since last year's estimate, to $25 trillion over the next 75
The coming deficits mean that if we delay reform indefinitely,
we'll eventually have to decide whether to cut benefits over 30
percent or raise payroll taxes about 50 percent. The first choice
puts millions of seniors in financial jeopardy; the second cripples
In some ways, we're victims of our own health. In 1935, a
65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, about 12.6
more years. Today, that figure is 17 years. In 2040, it'll be 19.
But thanks to these leaps in life expectancy, we've gone from
having 16 workers supporting every Social Security recipient in
1950 to just three today. And it will drop to two by 2030.
"A bit of extra resources" -- the remedy blithely prescribed by
New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman -- won't come close to
solving this problem. In just the first year after Social Security
begins paying out more than it takes in -- 2017, you'll recall --
we'd accrue $21 billion in deficits. By 2030, that would climb to
$252 billion, or about 20 percent of today's federal budget. By
2070, it would be a staggering $516 billion.
Climbing deficits aren't the only problem. Using 2002 numbers, a
33-year-old worker today who pays into the Social Security system
until retirement can expect a return on his Social Security
"investment" of 1.2 percent. That's less than a third what a basic
savings account would pay and about one-sixth what he could earn
investing the same amount today in a portfolio of blue-chip stocks
and bonds. Some groups, such as men born after 1959, will actually
lose money. Because of lower life-expectancy, African-American men
will lose more than any other group.
Most Americans realize a day of reckoning awaits Social
Security. And so, not surprisingly, a recent poll conducted for
National Public Radio by former Clinton/Gore pollster Stanley
Greenberg and Republican pollster Bill McInturff, shows wide
support for building retirement nest eggs through personal
The poll asked voters whether they support allowing workers to
invest some of their Social Security contributions in the "stock
market" (not a "balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds," as
President Bush has proposed). This wording, which made the proposal
sound more risky, didn't exactly favor the president's plan. Yet
the pollsters found voters support voluntary personal retirement
accounts by a margin of 55 percent to 40 percent. Among voters
younger than 65, 63 percent support the proposal.
Clearly, most Americans are comfortable with what President Bush
proposes because they know it works. Pension researchers recently
announced that, for the first time, employees contribute more to
their workplace pension or retirement plans than their employers.
They've embraced 401(k) plans -- which, unlike President Bush's
plan, provide no guarantee of return at all -- because they believe
that a conservative mix of investments will yield ample retirement
Perhaps this issue isn't quite the winner the president's foes envision. The crisis is real -- and so is the need for reform.
David John is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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