On Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed The Social Security Act. This was legislation designed to provide unemployment insurance during the Great Depression, old age insurance for American citizens and immediate, means-tested welfare assistance for desperate families.
By January 1937, taxes were being collected and the first lump sum payments went to qualified candidates. A new era of government had begun.
Our national media has paid scant attention to the crisis looming over the Social Security trust fund. This is the money that makes good on those promises to America’s retirees and disabled. Trust Fund administrators have sounded the alarm: Keeping Social Security solvent will require drastic changes. These include the possibility of benefit reductions as high as 21 percent across the board.
For decades, our federal servants in Washington have viewed Social Security as untouchable — the third rail of politics. Efforts to correct, fix, alter or improve Social Security were met with official scorn. Both the left and right used proposed Social Security benefit changes as career-ending clubs on one another. The most conscientious, responsible discussions turned into public acrimony.
Despite annual warnings of the sinking ratio of put-ins to payouts, with 10,000-Baby Boomers retiring each week and a shrinking workforce, our representatives and senators have done nothing to stem the tide of the trust funds drawdown.
Never mind that Congress has often “borrowed” trust fund money for pet programs. Never mind that members of Congress and many government employees are exempt from Social Security and have generous pensions to reward them for their service. By pushing back necessary action to maintain the solvency of Social Security, the work needed to return the program to financial health will be much more onerous than if Congress had done its job decades ago. Such is usually the case when the can is kicked down the road.
Far too many Americans have become dependent on Social Security for their entire retirement benefit program. Can our society still perform if future retirees, who have paid in all of their working lives, face diminished returns when the money is most needed?
In the private sector, pension plans have largely disappeared. In the public sector, however, pension plans created in the 1950s and 1960s to entice more interest in government jobs are woefully out of whack with today’s economics and must also be changed to reflect future expenses. Government employee pension costs are spiraling out of control and will soon push to the top of the expenditures list in many cities and states.
How to jump start the discussion about improving Social Security funding?
We suggest all employees — government, union and private sector included — should be enrolled in Social Security. No more carve-outs for protected classes or sectors of employees, such as members of Congress. Everyone has weekly payroll deductions. The payroll tax should also be extended to every dollar earned, with no ceiling on employee deduction or employer match. This would help restore the depleted funds held in reserve — if Congress can keep its hands off the trust funds. Also, the retirement eligibility dates need to be changed. The minimum should be upped to 67, as we are living longer, healthier lives than we did in 1935.
Congress must get to work on the seriousness of correcting our Social Security program’s funding. This is not a partisan issue; this is a fairness issue that requires politics to be checked at the door. Bold steps are needed; who will lead?