“We need to look over the horizon and begin to phase in, over an extended period of time, going from 65 to 68 or 70. And that, by itself, will help sustain the retirement system for anybody under the age of 40.”

Jeb Bush’s statements from CBS’s “Face the Nation” about Social Security expose a distance from the issue that is unhealthy for Americans who depend upon the system. In his interview, he states the wrong retirement age, and delivers promises which are off by decades.


A number of his critics have already pointed out that Bush misstated the normal retirement age (“NRA”).  The NRA of Social Security is 66, not 65.  It hasn’t been 65 in more than a decade. Yes, some enjoy poking a wealthy politician unacquainted with his own retirement age about the suggestion to increase the NRA of others.

For me, it is a forgivable slip given that Bush was speaking on a Sunday morning news program, rather than in a more formal setting.  He has spoken in the past of increasing the retirement age.  In this interview, he was only providing additional clarity to a past position. 

The unforgivable part of the statement went unreported.  Bush’s statement that adjusting the retirement age would stabilize the system for those under the age of 40 is off by decades. A proposal such as his is unlikely to move the exhaustion date by even 1 year. 

His commitment to people close to retirement contrasts sharply with the forecasts of the trustees in their annual report. According to the trustees, Social Security today cannot assure existing retirees of scheduled benefits.  Someone turning 66 today expects to live roughly 20 years, whereas Social Security has less than a 50/50 chance of paying benefits for 18 years. 

While Bush may believe that he is increasing the retirement age by 5 years, his proposal does little to move these forecasts, which already incorporate the move of NRA to 67 enacted in 1983. Separately, the gradual change moves the NRA so slowly that it is likely that the Trust Fund will be exhausted before his plan would even be implemented.

Research from the Social Security Administration confirms the impotence of these proposals.  Gradually increasing the NRA to 68 starting with people who are 55 today will provide zero years of additional scheduled benefits.  The overall impact of this proposal reduces the 75-year shortfall by a modest 12 percent.

Changing the retirement age to 70 does little more than the proposal to change the retirement age to 68.  Moving NRA at a pace of 1 month per year means that the system does not reach full NRA until 2058, 25 years following the projected insolvency of the system today.

The Bush proposal would make more sense if increasing life expectancy were driving the program’s financial complications.  Under the 1983 Social Security reform, the law gradually increased retirement age by 2 year starting in 2000.  That change pretty much accounts for all of the increase in life expectancy of retirees until 2050.

Bush supporters will counter that there is a higher number of people reaching retirement.  The increase is about 2 percent.  This increase is likely paid for by the 100 percent of the people who must contribute for the additional period of time.  No one can tell you that it is a wash, but Jeb Bush’s proposal could increase the retirement age by three years to offset an expected growth in benefits of about ½ a year.

His proposal demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the system’s problems and the efficacy of his proposal.  The change does not change the math of the retirement system for people under the age of 50 much less those under 40. These people would continue to expect to retire after the Trust Fund is gone at which point they would continue to be subject to unknown benefit cuts.

In short, his proposal looks more like checking boxes than offering a thoughtful response to a system on which millions depend.

Smith is the founder of “Fix Social Security Now” which provides information on all alternatives in the public debate on Social Security through its site www.FixSSNow.Org.