Social Security Fixer-Uppers

By Martha M. Hamilton
Sunday, June 24, 2007

I just solved the Social Security problem in three easy moves.

I launched the online Social Security Game, made a few choices and, voila!

It was simple, really, especially for someone unencumbered by running for election.

Lots of folks are worried about what will become of Social Security, including people in their 20s and 30s who are saving like crazy in IRAs and 401(k)s because they don't expect Social Security to be there when they retire.

Even so, the words have hardly been whispered in the presidential campaign. The candidates have stuck to safe topics, such as the war in Iraq and abortion.

But among academics and public policy types, the future of Social Security is a hot topic and, they say, maybe not so complicated. For the rest of us, it's vital to understand the choices involved so we can have a say in how it gets fixed.

Two organizations have produced easy ways to start thinking about what needs to be done. The American Academy of Actuaries produced the Social Security Game with a challenging invocation -- "You fix it!" And the Center for Retirement Research has produced what looks like the Little Golden Book of Social Security, called "The Social Security Fix-It Book."

Both lay out ways to bridge the funding gap and the pros and cons of each. But with each proposed fix, there are winners and losers, which means powerful interests are lined up for and against.

Demographics eventually will force the issue as the number of retirees receiving benefits outstrips the number of workers contributing taxes. So sooner or later, changes will be made, and they could make a major difference in your retirement. That's what finally forced me to pay attention, and I found an easy way to get into the subject through the game and the book.

The first question that faced me while playing the game was whether to increase the retirement age for full benefits and, if so, how quickly.

The age is already creeping up. Until 2003, everyone qualified for full benefits on turning 65. But then, as a result of an agreement reached 20 years before, the age began moving higher. This year, it takes 65 years and 10 months to qualify, and for those born after 1960, it's 67.

The game gave me three choices: Do nothing, speed up the process or raise the age to 70 in 2030. I opted to raise the age to 70. And it solved nearly 70 percent of the funding problem.

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