It’s become a cliche to say that Social Security is unsustainable, but it’s also the truth. The Social Security Administration projects that it will only be able to pay its beneficiaries in full until 2037. If Congress doesn’t act, benefits will be cut for millions of retirees who have already contributed to the plan.
Efforts to reform the program have been launched: Rep. Reid J. Ribble (R-Wis.), for example, has taken on the unpopular task of proposing potential fixes, which include a combination of expanding taxes, upping the retirement age and reducing future benefits by pinning them to more accurate inflation measurements. The proposal has attracted some limited bipartisan support, but it’s unlikely to make headway in the House. Anything that gives the impression of trying to dismantle the much-relied-upon “comprehensive package of protection” against the “hazards and vicissitudes of life” is tantamount to political suicide.
Hillary Clinton has stated that she doesn’t want to roll back Social Security benefits in any way. In fact, she wants to expand the program. Donald Trump, meanwhile, hasn’t laid out any specific policy points on Social Security, but he has said that he opposes any cuts to benefits.
Are the most popularly proposed Social Security reforms — raising the retirement age, reforming cost-of-living adjustments or expanding the withholding tax — fair to retirees and workers? If not, what should be done to make the program sustainable going forward?
No one should assess Social Security policy in isolation. What is fair in Social Security must relate to what is fair for the national budget as a whole.
Congressional Budget Office projections indicate that by 2026 we’ll be 21 percent richer, and that tax revenues will rise at a slightly higher rate. That means we stand before an ocean of opportunity. But of the expected $850 billion in additional real revenues, about 150 percent (or about $1.3 trillion) is committed entirely to increasingly expensive payments to Social Security, health care and interest on the debt. And as a result of these commitments, almost anything that represents investment — in our children, infrastructure or the basic functions of government — takes it on the chin.
Even as revenues grow, the number of workers available to pay for Social Security benefits is falling rapidly, meaning that either benefits must be cut, taxes increased, or both. Every delay puts more of the cost on the young.
Social Security maintains a design built around an economy and family structure of the past. People aged 65 now live about six years longer and retire even earlier than they did in 1940 when the system first paid benefits. That means families like Clinton’s, Trump’s and mine will be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars more in lifetime benefits than they would have when the system was first created, while many future elderly will still be left in poverty.
So what must be done? Slow down and reorient the growth in benefits scheduled for future retirees. A typical couple retiring today gets more than $1 million in lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits; millennials are unrealistically scheduled to get $2 million. That growth can be slowed without being stopped and shifted more toward those who are truly old with low- to moderate-incomes. While Social Security’s long-recognized shortfalls inevitably mean someone must pay, those with above-median incomes are the ones with the money.
Still, no Social Security benefits need to be cut for those currently retired. To do better for those elderly with median or lower lifetime incomes, we should raise minimum benefits and give credit for raising children. We should also fix absurd rules around spousal and survivor benefits and other sources of inequity.
The current system discourages work in late-middle age, something that is no longer easily affordable and which reduces economic growth, personal income and tax revenues. Congress should reduce Social Security’s natural disincentives for work both by adjusting the retirement age as we live longer and saving a larger share of lifetime benefits for later ages, when health needs rise and work is less possible. As lifespan increases, Social Security now promises a typical newly retired couple aged 62 an average of more than 28 years of benefits (today, one of them is likely to make it to 90 years of age). That’s more than enough; there are greater societal needs than the desire for more retirement years.
Finally, the tax issue. While some broadening of the Social Security tax base is possible, government needs to concentrate on raising revenue for high priorities apart from Social Security: our growing national debt, and vital investments such as education, infrastructure and support for working families. Campaigns are about giveaways, but true reform requires looking at what must be done and how, whether we want to or not.