Smile -- You're on Social Security!

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.

"I spent a fair amount of time talking to senior people in the White House, talking to people in Congress," Astrue explained. "There is an acknowledgment that they have to step up and do it."

Oh? "We're not seeing that," WJLA's Rebecca Cooper advised the commissioner. "What did they tell you?"

"When you're behind closed doors," the commissioner asserted, "there's a real expectation that it's going to happen."

Cooper tried again. "You as the leader on this -- what are you backing?"

"Well, uh, I -- I'm flattered by the assumption of your question," the commissioner said, but "Secretary Paulson has the lead." (That would be Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.)

"What do you recommend?"

"Well, I'm recommending what Secretary Paulson knows I'm recommending to him, but I'm not going to share that now."

So, the Social Security commissioner has secret ideas for fixing the system and lawmakers secretly want to take action? No wonder the members of Generation X -- born after 1964 -- are more likely to believe in UFOs than in receiving their Social Security checks.

Casey-Kirschling, speaking for the boomers, counseled confidence. "I have great hope," she said, that Social Security will be repaired for "my children's generation and certainly my grandchildren's."

Cooper, a Gen X-er, asked Casey-Kirschling about that famous UFO poll. "Why do you have so much confidence?"

"I always like to have my glass half full," she explained.

The first boomer, who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore, opened her eyes wide with surprise as she entered yesterday's event at the National Press Club and saw all the TV cameras. She put on her reading glasses, then pointed and clicked her way through the online application while television recorded her every mouse movement. "A fun experience," she pronounced when she finished, then went on to explain why she was applying for early Social Security benefits.

"I'm going to take it now because I can take it now," Casey-Kirschling reasoned. "I'm thrilled to think that after all these years I'm getting paid back the money I put in."

For those who will follow the boomers into retirement, it had the faint ring of a taunt.

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