Advocates for strengthening Social Security have come to dread the release of the annual report of the program's trustees.
That's because the event has become the basis for more hand-wringing about Social Security's fiscal condition and calls to cut benefits for current and future retirees. This week's release of the 2012 report is no exception.
If you concentrate on what is sure to be the headline figure, you're led to believe that the program has seldom been in lousier shape. Largely because of disappointing economic growth, high unemployment and an unexpectedly large cost-of-living increase for beneficiaries, the date of exhaustion of the program's trust fund has been moved forward three years to 2033 since last year's report.
What won't be adequately explained is that the program isn't "insolvent" or "bankrupt." Even if you accept the dire forecast, it's still two decades off. Economic recovery alone will improve the program's fiscal condition, and the trustees say that even if Congress does absolutely nothing, in 2033 there still will be money to pay about 75% of currently scheduled benefits.
And by the way, despite facing the worst economic conditions in its history, the program ran a surplus of $69 billion last year, increasing the trust fund to nearly $2.7 trillion.
The greater danger in all the panicky talk that will come from politicians and pundits, not to mention Wall Street grandees, about this manifestly conjectural projection is that it will keep people from focusing on the most important figure in the trustees' report. It appears on Page 2, and what it says is that right now Social Security is providing benefits to 55 million people.
That testifies to the reach of a program that keeps 20 million Americans out of poverty and helps stabilize the economy by putting money into the hands of people who will spend it on goods and services. And it points to the best way to improve Social Security's value for all Americans: by increasing benefits to better serve the neediest workers, and expanding its reach to cover workers and dependents who have been cheated by or excluded from the system for far too long.
Yes, you heard me right. It's time to shut down the talk of cutting benefits, which serves nobody, and pump up the volume on making them better.
The idea has been around for years, but its supporters have been hunkered down against a conservative campaign to cut, cut, cut. It's emerging from its foxhole now because the long recession and two stock market crashes have put the final bullets into the hopes of millions of Americans for a secure retirement.
Of the customary three legs of the retirement stool, two — personal savings and employer-paid pensions — have been shattered into smithereens by the markets, high unemployment and changes in workplace benefits. Social Security is the third leg.
"What we really should be doing is beefing up the third leg of the stool, and not breaking it too," says Kelly Ross, a retirement expert at the AFL-CIO. The union is calling for increasing benefits across the board, changing the cost-of-living formula to an index geared to the real costs faced by seniors, and scrapping the cap on wage income subject to payroll taxes, which has been set for this year at $110,100.
Similar provisions are found in the most comprehensive congressional proposal to upgrade Social Security, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in his Rebuild America Act. Social Security's actuaries calculate that the tax increase in Harkin's measure, to be phased in over a decade, would virtually eliminate any Social Security deficit until mid-century while paying for an across-the-board monthly benefit raise of $65 after 10 years.
Harkin would also base retiree cost-of-living raises on the CPI-E, an inflation index that overweights goods and services that consume a lot of elderly people's budgets, such as medical care. The CPI-E rises at about 0.2 percentage points a year faster than the regular CPI, which makes a big difference over time.
Other proposals to shore up the income and retirement security of historically overlooked segments of society deserve serious consideration. One is to create a "caregiver credit" to counteract Social Security's consistent shortchanging of women. Although retirement benefits are based on the best-paid 35 years of one's working life, women on average spend only 27 years in the workforce. Why? Because they tend to spend years raising children or caring for elderly or disabled family members. Social Security counts those years as big zeros, wage-wise, which translates into lower benefits.
"Instead of having zeros, she should have something," says Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. One common proposal backed by NOW and other women's groups would be to assign caregiver years a value equivalent to half the median wage for full-time work, which is about $41,000.
Now that we've been regaled for weeks by politicians paying lip service to the valor and value of women working in the home, this one should be easy, right? In a sane political world, Democrats and Republicans alike would be falling all over themselves to put their money where their mouths are. So here's an idea: Next time Mitt Romney or Barack Obama waves to the crowds from the I'm-for-motherhood parade float, let's get them on the record in support of the caregiver credit.
Another underserved group is students. Since 1939, Social Security has supported dependents or survivors of disabled or deceased workers up to the age of 19 if they were in school. In 1965, Congress added benefits for those in school or college through age 21. But it took them away in 1981 as part of a Reagan administration cost-cutting move.
Since college graduates earn 60% to 70% more than high school graduates over their lifetimes on average, keeping kids in college would easily pay for itself. "That should be a no-brainer," says Thomas N. Bethell, visiting scholar at the national Academy of Social Insurance. Brave words, considering the brainlessness of much of the Social Security debate in Washington.
Modernizing Social Security is crucial today because the actions of government and industry have increased Americans' dependence on the program. Defined-benefit pensions, which inoculated retirement security from investment risk, have been on a trend line to extinction since 1980, when 38% of all private sector workers were covered. Today the figure is 20% and falling.
They've been supplanted by defined-contribution plans such as 401(k) accounts, into which workers place a certain amount per paycheck (sometimes augmented by an employer contribution), and cross their fingers that the investment markets won't abscond with their retirement dreams. But 401(k)s haven't proved to be up to the challenge. The average balance for workers in their 60s is less than $160,000. That sounds like a lot, but it won't bring you a happy retirement. If you use it to buy an annuity that will pay off through your and your spouse's lifetime, it would produce annual income of about $8,400; add inflation protection of up to 3% annually, and you start with less than $5,500 a year. (I used the federal employee Thrift Savings Plan's annuity calculator to crunch the numbers.) By contrast, Social Security is a lifetime benefit, protected from inflation no matter how fast prices rise.
Undoubtedly you're going to hear that improving Social Security will bankrupt America. This is the mating cry of the haves-and-want-mores, and it's malarkey. Federal taxes — personal, corporate and excise combined — amounted to about 15.4% of our gross national product last year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. That's lower than the level of every other industrialized country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Isn't it curious that the same people who insist that America is the greatest, richest country in the world, ever, are those who insist that there's no way we can afford to provide for our elderly, our disabled and the survivors of our deceased workers to the same degree as the rest of the industrialized world?
The received wisdom among political insiders is that today's hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington makes any talk of raising Social Security benefits a non-starter. But maybe this is exactly the moment to turn the conversation around. Every member of Congress will be out on the stump, along with the leaders of their parties, facing the voters.
"This is an important thing for constituents to be talking to their candidates about," NOW's O'Neill says. "Are you with us, or are you against us — that's the question."
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.