October 31, 2004

October 31, 2004 | Commentary on Social Security

Social Security Personal Accounts? Yes!

Wishful thinking and political rhetoric won't fix Social Security. The problem is simple. Baby boomers, who begin to retire in about three years, didn't have enough children. When millions of boomers retire, there won't be enough taxpayers to pay their benefits without huge tax increases.

Neither economic growth nor balanced budgets will fix this problem. Social Security benefits are based on earnings. As the economy grows and people earn more, Social Security will end up owing more in benefits.

As for balancing the budget, any family knows it is easier to pay your bills if you live within your means. However, $100,000 in home repairs stretches family finances well past the breaking point. Once Social Security needs additional money, it will need an amount equal to today's national debt in the first 20 years alone - and things only get worse after that.

There are only three solutions: raise taxes, cut benefits or make the taxes we already pay work harder in personal retirement accounts. The first two aren't very attractive. Social Security benefits are too low now, and raising payroll taxes reduces jobs.

But accounts do work. My 18-year-old daughter, Meredith, could receive twice what Social Security will be able to pay her by investing her taxes in some form of government bonds. She would do even better by investing part of the money in stock index funds. The accounts would be centrally managed and automatically invested to keep costs low (the Social Security Administration says about 30 cents for every $100). Instead of trying to pick individual stocks, the accounts would invest in funds made up of bonds and every stock traded on an exchange. To reduce risk, older people's accounts would hold fewer stocks and more bonds.

Personal accounts are practical and feasible. More important, the money in those accounts would be yours, and not subject to the whims of a politician. If you died young, it would go to your family.

This system will cost money to set up. Opponents like to dwell on an exaggerated cost estimate but don't mention that it is less than one-third the cost of doing nothing. And neither today's retirees nor those close to retirement will see their benefits drop by a single cent.

We have a choice: fix the problem or leave a mess for our kids. Accounts are the only answer.

John is a senior research fellow for Social Security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Social Security

First appeared in the New York Daily News