If Congress takes no action, the Social Security trust fund will become depleted in 2034

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With the inevitability of the president’s early morning tweets, conservatives are spinning the 2018 Social Security Trustees report as a death knell for the program. Unless, that is, Congress and the president have the “courage” to “reform” this “entitlement.” By “reform,” fiscal hawks really mean raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 or 70, cutting benefits, and reducing retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).

Here’s what the Trustees actually reported: If Congress takes no action whatsoever, the Social Security trust fund will become depleted in 2034, at which time the system could still pay 79 percent of benefits.

{mosads}That’s because workers’ payroll contributions still will be flowing into the system. We recognize that doing nothing is not an option, but asking retirees to bear any benefit cuts to keep Social Security on a sound financial footing is unnecessary and unfair.


Instead, there are modest and manageable measures, including legislation proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) to generate sufficient revenue to keep Social Security solvent for several decades. (In the case of Larson’s bill, to the end of the century).

Even so, former Trump campaign aide Corey Lewandowski sounds false alarm bells in a recent Hill article by claiming that “if ‘entitlements’ are not reformed, our federal government will be in danger of default.” In fact, tax expenditures  — including the massive tax cut the president and Congressional Republicans bestowed on the wealthy and large corporations  — pose the gravest threat to the federal government’s fiscal solvency.

On the other hand, Social Security is self-funded from workers’ payroll contributions, not general revenues, and does not contribute a penny to the deficit — contrary to what Lewandowski says.

Nonetheless, Lewandowski toes the line for the right-wing Heritage Foundation, advocating that the Social Security retirement age be raised and that we transition to a “flat, anti-poverty benefit for future beneficiaries.”

Never mind that Social Security is designed as a progressive (rather than flat) benefit, based on workers’ lifetime earnings, and has kept millions of seniors out of poverty for more than 80 years. It can continue to do so without draconian cuts (including “a flat anti-poverty benefit”).

Future beneficiaries would have a hard time living on leaner Social Security checks and stingier COLA’s. Imagine a senior on a fixed income, having been unable to save for retirement because of stagnant wages, without an employer-provided pension, facing ever-rising costs for housing and healthcare — and living on less than the average benefit of some $1,400 per month. It is not something you would wish on your grandmother, your father, or your children (who will retire some day).

Unfortunately, Lewandowski is not the only one calling for such drastic solutions. In the Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson argues that federal deficits cannot be reduced “if Medicare and Social Security are excluded from cuts.” Again, if Republicans were serious about reducing federal debt, they would not have blown a projected $1.9 trillion hole in the deficit with their reckless tax plan. Instead, they want future retirees to shoulder a burden they cannot afford.

Even so, Samuelson prescribes a breathtakingly Dickensian remedy for Social Security’s financial challenges:

“We need to rewrite the social contract between generations to reflect… changed conditions — longer life expectancies and greater private wealth. Eligibility ages need to be raised; benefits for wealthier recipients need to be trimmed. At age 65, typical Americans live another two decades.”

That “greater private wealth” that Samuelson references  — the result of growing income inequality in the past four decades  — is one of the reasons for the projected shortfall in the trust fund. In 1983, some 90 percent of Americans earned less than the income cap for Social Security payroll taxes. Today, wealth disparity has pushed that number down to about 82 percent. In other words, upper income earners are contributing less to Social Security than they did a generation ago.

Legislation from Congressman Larson would correct for this by adjusting the payroll tax income cap, (currently set at $128,400) so that upper income earners pay their fair share. In exchange, their benefits would increase.

Citing “longer life expectancies” is a spurious argument for raising the Social Security retirement age. Life expectancy for wealthier, white collar Americans may be rising, but not for the working class.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in the Los Angeles Times, a new report from the Social Security actuaries “shows that mortality rates among people 62 and older are inextricably linked to lifetime earnings.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has shown that lower income men approaching retirement live, on average, 3 to 12 years fewer than higher income men. 

What’s more, older workers engaged in physical labor cannot necessarily continue working until 69 or 70. Nor would they likely be able to live on a reduced benefit if they claimed benefits early.

Simply put, raising the retirement age is a benefit cut for everyone  — x regardless of income or life span.

“We simply cannot afford to subsidize a fifth of the population for another 20 years or so,” writes Samuelson. Of course, Social Security is not a subsidy; it is income insurance funded by workers. Polling indicates that overwhelming majorities of Americans across party lines support Social Security and do not want the program cut.

In fact, Congress can afford to honor the commitment the federal government makes to American workers by passing the legislation offered by Sen. Sanders and Rep. Larson. Social Security can remain viable without punishing those who depend on it for financial security in retirement.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization which promotes the financial security, health, and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans.

Tags Bernie Sanders Corey Lewandowski John Larson Medicare Social Security benefits

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