Op-Ed: Social Security isn’t in crisis. It just needs a tune-up
Eighty-four years ago Wednesday, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law. He advised future generations to continue building on the program’s foundation, which he explained “represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
Recognizing Social Security’s importance to the economic security of working families, policymakers followed FDR’s direction and expanded it regularly — until 1972. In the years since, politicians have increasingly seen government, to quote Ronald Reagan, not as “the solution to our problem” but as “the problem.” Not coincidentally, Congress has not passed legislation to expand Social Security in more than four decades.
Nor has any action been taken to increase Social Security’s dedicated revenue, despite the fact that a modest shortfall — projected to begin in 2035 — was first reported to Congress in 1989.
When a shortfall was reported to Congress in 1975, legislation was enacted in 1977. When a new projected shortfall was reported in 1979, Congress again reacted relatively quickly, passing legislation in 1983. In contrast, three decades have passed without action to address a shortfall first identified in 1989.
Notwithstanding that failure to act, Social Security’s current projected shortfall, modest in size and still years away, is not a “crisis,” as too many politicians assert, but a call for simple maintenance. If your car needs an oil change, it’s not a crisis. But if you do nothing, and wait until your engine is blown, it can become a crisis.
We are still 16 years away from a blown engine. The common-sense maintenance needed is twofold. Congress should increase Social Security’s revenue, as it did about every other year, on average, between 1950 and 1983. And Social Security benefits, which average only about $16,000 a year per person, should be increased.
This is particularly important given that the country is facing a looming retirement income crisis, which means Social Security will be more important than ever. Only 22% of today’s workers have traditional pensions, and nearly half of those 55 and older have no retirement savings.
Fortunately, one chamber of Congress is on the verge of acting. The Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut and co-sponsored by 210 of his fellow Democrats, is expected to pass the House of Representatives this fall. The bill expands Social Security’s benefits for all current and future beneficiaries. It also switches to a more accurate measure of inflation to adjust benefits so they don’t erode in value. Additionally, the bill increases Social Security’s minimum benefit so that workers do not retire into poverty after a lifetime of contributing to the program.
The Social Security 2100 Act would ensure that all benefits could be paid in full and on time through the year 2100. It would require the wealthiest Americans, who currently stop paying into Social Security after their first $132,900 in earnings, to again pay into the program once their earnings rise above $400,000.
It also includes a gradual increase in the contribution rate, from the current 6.2% to 7.4% in 2043 — nearly a quarter of a century from now. That is an annual increase of just 5/100ths of a percent on employee and employer contributions to Social Security each week. For workers earning $50,000, that’s a mere 50 cents a week increase per year.
This contribution rate increase is much smaller than increases enacted by past Congresses. In 1973, the rate increased by 0.65% in just one year. That’s 13 times larger than the current proposed annual increase.
According to the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, millennials would pay, on average, an extra $15,500 toward Social Security during their careers, as would their employers. In return, they would get over $80,000 more in retirement benefits than they would without the 2100 Act. And if they became disabled or died leaving dependents, those Social Security benefits would be larger too.
Polling shows that Americans across the political spectrum are willing to pay more to protect and expand Social Security. Yet not a single Republican member of Congress has co-sponsored the Social Security 2100 Act. Nor have any of them offered any alternative legislation.
As Larson recently wrote, “The hard truth of the matter is that Republicans want to cut Social Security, and doing nothing achieves their goal.” If Congress fails to act before 2035, the chief actuary has projected that benefits will be cut by 20%. That would be a victory for the anti-government, anti-worker ideology of some of the wealthiest donors to the Republican Party.
Even though we are living in polarized political times, this is one issue on which most of us agree. An overwhelming majority of Democratic, Republican, and independent voters support making sure Social Security can remain a bedrock of American retirement. Democrats in Congress are following their lead. Their Republican colleagues should too.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works and chairwoman of the Strengthen Social Security coalition.
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