May 12, 2005

May 12, 2005 | Commentary on

Solutions for Social Security

The federal government makes many demands on us. It insists we pay taxes, for example. So the least we can expect in return is honesty.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Social Security, honesty is sorely lacking. Few policymakers are willing to admit that Congress is responsible for a Social Security benefits package it simply won't be able to pay for. And fixing the problem is going to be costly and politically difficult.

Congress would have to raise almost $6 trillion today in order to finance all the Social Security benefits it has promised to pay between 2017 and 2080. That's more than twice what the entire federal government will spend next year on all programs, and it doesn't include the trillions of dollars in payroll taxes Social Security will collect in the coming years. Unless something changes, the money simply won't be there.

 

President Bush recently suggested two changes that would begin to address this problem: He wants to update the Social Security benefits schedule and allow workers to invest in Personal Retirement Accounts.

To achieve the first goal, the president recently called on Congress to slow the growth of traditional Social Security benefits for middle- and upper-class Americans. Opponents immediately accused the president of wanting to "cut" benefits, but that's not true.

Right now, the government uses an unsustainable formula. Social Security benefits are tied to wage growth instead of to inflation, so they increase more quickly than necessary. With the president's proposal, the benefits of the wealthiest Americans (those who earn more than $100,000 a year) would grow "only" at the rate of inflation.

This would assure that nobody would suffer a true cut -- even the richest Social Security recipients would be guaranteed at least the same, inflation-adjusted level of benefits today's retirees receive. Meanwhile, because benefits for the poorest Americans would remain tied to wages, we'd ensure that they receive proportionally higher benefits in years to come.

Let's remember that Social Security was advertised as an insurance program, set up to make sure that elderly Americans wouldn't be forced to live in poverty. And it has worked. Decades ago, most people feared retirement. Once they were no longer able to work and earn money, chances were they'd be dependent on their relatives.

But today, most people look forward to retiring. And, more important, they save up for it. Almost every middle-class worker has an IRA and a 401(k) plan. They set aside some money from every paycheck for their "golden years."

But lower-income Americans are far less likely to be able to do that. By the time they make their housing payment, buy food for the family, make the car payment and pay off the credit cards, there's nothing left to invest. These are the people most likely to depend on Social Security.

And that's where the president's second reform measure -- the creation of Personal Retirement Accounts -- figures in.

PRAs would let all workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes into personal accounts they would own and control. They would be similar to an IRA, except workers would be investing their own tax money, and they would have only a handful of safe bond and mutual funds to invest in. At retirement, a worker could convert the entire account into an annuity or leave some of the money invested to spend later or pass on to heirs.

Since workers could expect better returns from PRAs than from the current Social Security system, they would be better off in the long run. Plus, if Congress will allow PRAs and change the way benefits are awarded to wealthier workers, the system can be kept solvent for decades to come, and Washington could actually keep its promises -- instead of eventually drowning all of us in a sea of red ink.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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