Counting on Social Security

By Walt Braun

Social Security trustees this week issued their annual projection about the program’s long-term health. Like most others in recent years, it was gloomy.

In short, trustees said they expect funding for retirement benefits to fall short three years earlier than they did last year. That means 2033 — which is just 21 years away – instead of 2036. After that, they say, the program will do well to pay three-fourths of promised benefits to retirees and the disabled.

How much Americans ought to worry depends on a number of things. Among them is whether you plan to be around in 21 years to collect Social Security. Another is your degree of confidence that Congress will do something constructive to at least postpone what inaction will make inevitable.

It’s worth noting that little of substance has been done to shore up Social Security in almost 30 years. Back in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, lawmakers from both parties collaborated and approved gradual increases in the retirement age and in payroll taxes. It’s also worth noting that before those lawmakers acted, advocates for years had been sounding the alarm that unless dramatic changes were made, crisis loomed.

Such warnings have again sounded — for years —  waiting on a Congress and a president with the political courage to do something other than wring their hands and look around for political adversaries to blame.

The options today start with those lawmakers had in 1983: raising both payroll taxes and the retirement age. Also worthy of consideration are scaling back benefits and using means testing to make sure retirees who cannot get by without Social Security are provided for. Reminding —  starkly warning — workers that Social Security will not provide a comfortable retirement could nudge more Americans to set money aside on their own.

Trouble is, Congress as presently constituted seems ill-equipped to deal with or even recognize crises. Political demands and counterdemands, which have dominated the debates over the federal debt and federal budget, only make those crises more acute. Lawmakers’ actions hardly inspire confidence that they can responsibly address Social Security reform.

If history is any guide, they’ll leave that problem for the next Congress… or the one after that, perhaps pushing away worries that the longer they wait, the more difficult the chore will become for whoever is willing to make the hard but necessary decisions.

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