Reform is needed to prevent old-age poverty

COMMENTARY Poverty and Inequality

Reform is needed to prevent old-age poverty

Nov 2nd, 2013 2 min read

Former Director, Grover M. Hermann Center

Romina was a leading fiscal and economic expert at The Heritage Foundation and focused on government spending and the national debt.

Social Security would give “some measure of protection against poverty-ridden old age,” as President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1935 when the Social Security Act became law.

Today’s program is very different. It leaves some eligible seniors in poverty, while providing benefits to more than 47,000 millionaires. Because the program operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, current workers, including those of very modest means, part with 12.4 percent of their earned income each paycheck to fund income support for retirees, many of whom are much better off.

Today, the program also pays out far more than it takes in. The growing cash-flow deficits threaten tax increases on workers and automatic benefit cuts when the trust fund is exhausted in 2033. Lawmakers should not wait until then to reform Social Security. To improve the program, reforms should make sure that retirees with the greatest need for income assistance receive adequate benefits, while protecting working Americans from higher taxes. Here are three common-sense reforms to achieve that:

• Fix Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment. Benefits should be protected from inflation, but a more accurate measure of inflation – chained CPI – should be used to calculate adjustments in benefits. Today’s outdated measure benefits maximum-wage-earner retirees twice as much as the average retiree and needlessly weakens the program financially.

• Increase the full retirement age. Since Social Security’s inception, U.S. life expectancy at age 65 has increased by about seven years. Yet Social Security’s full retirement age is projected to increase by only two years. For Social Security, this means greater financial strain, and for the economy, it means a smaller workforce, less economic growth and less revenue. Lawmakers should gradually and predictably increase the full retirement age and then index it to increases in life expectancy.

• Focus Social Security benefits on those who need them most. Lawmakers should reduce benefits for retirees with high levels of non-Social Security income. Why should today’s struggling families be forced to subsidize retirement for Bill Gates or Warren Buffett? Social Security should – first and foremost – guarantee all seniors that they won’t sink into poverty upon retirement as real peace-of-mind insurance.

Raising payroll taxes should not be an option. It might delay – but would not solve – the program’s fiscal problems. Raising the payroll tax cap to cover 90 percent of earnings (from the historical average level of 83 percent) would be a serious hit to many small businesses. Eliminating the payroll tax cap altogether would raise marginal tax rates for some income earners to a staggering 62 percent, producing additional growth-slowing effects on the economy.

To protect Americans from poverty in old age – and do so without burdening younger generations with debilitating taxes – Social Security must be reformed. Lawmakers should not wait until the trust fund is gone. They should begin implementing common-sense solutions now with care and deliberation.

 - Romina Boccia is the Heritage Foundation's Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs.

Originally published by