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Smile -- You're on Social Security!

The first baby boomer signs up for benefits while they still exist.
The first baby boomer signs up for benefits while they still exist. (By Dana Milbank -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

When it comes to the nation's finances, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling is Public Enemy No. 1.

Her offense: being born.

Specifically, being born on Jan. 1, 1946, just a tick after midnight. That made her the first member of the 80 million-strong baby-boom generation, which, starting next year, will begin to bankrupt the nation by crashing the Medicare and Social Security systems. To tout this happy "milestone," the Social Security Administration called a news conference yesterday and invited cameras to film Casey-Kirschling signing up for benefits.

"I think I'm just lucky to be at the top of the boom," said the retired schoolteacher. "I'm blessed to be able to take my Social Security now."

No kidding. As the boomers retire, Social Security will go into the red in 2017 and become insolvent 24 years later, according to the system's trustees. Medicare, meanwhile, starts bleeding in 2013 and goes under in 2019.

Fixing the two would require Medicare and Social Security benefits to be cut immediately by 51 percent and 13 percent, respectively, perhaps by raising retirement ages. And that's a nonstarter for Casey-Kirschling's generation. "Why should boomers who have earned it and who may need that extra support in their retirement -- for medicine, for food, for whatever -- why should they wait if they really don't have to?" she asked.

"That's exactly right," concurred Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, standing at Casey-Kirschling's side. "And I think we ought to cut Kathy a little bit of a break here."

Yes, let's. It's not her fault that, ever since a writer for Money magazine found her on the eve of her 40th birthday in 1985, she has been a symbol of her generation. If anything, the ones to blame for the entitlement problems are the boomer presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and all the boomers in Congress who have put off the painful changes everybody knows will be needed.

Commissioner Astrue, also a boomer, spent much of the news conference whistling past the graveyard of entitlement insolvency.

"There's no reason to have any immediate panic," he announced. "This president, everybody running for president, pretty much everybody in Congress, all accept that there's an issue."

Astrue said he expects Social Security to be fixed before his term as commissioner ends in 2013. And even if not, he added: "It's not catastrophic. . . . Some of the nuclear-winter scenarios that you hear people talking about, really there isn't a factual basis for that."

"What makes you confident?" asked Bloomberg News's Brian Faler.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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