"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," goes the old cliche. So what about Social Security? Is it broke? Does it need fixing?
An often-quoted poll suggests that younger wage earners believe there's a better chance of them seeing a UFO than seeing a Social Security check (for themselves after retirement). The accuracy of this alleged opinion has recently been questioned in a recent poll conducted by two polling services.The Employee Benefit Research Institution (EBRI) and Mathew Greenwald & Associates (MGA) conducted their own Social Security poll this year and found when folks were asked whether they had greater confidence that they would receive Social Security benefits or that alien life exists in outer space found that 71 percent of those polled said: "They had greater confidence in receiving Social Security benefits, while 26 percent said that they had greater confidence that alien life exists in outer space."
I believe that the public's faith in Social Security is still strong. The reason for continued confidence in the Social Security system is not without explanation. Since 1935, Social Security has never failed to meet a promised benefit check. Administrative costs of returning benefits to working-life contributors is just 1 percent. Amazing efficiency. Perhaps, it is the best managed of all federal programs.
But what about the future of Social Security - for my sons and daughters and their children? The Social Security trustees say that Social Security is not in crisis and even without changes, the program will be able to pay full benefits that keep pace with the cost of living until 2032. After that, it will still be able to pay 75 percent of benefits promised.
But I'm not satisfied, and the public should not be satisfied that payment of 75 percent of promised benefits would be fair or adequate. In Utah, according to the Social Security Administration, 224,300 residents receive Social Security benefits. To ensure that future generations receive adequate benefits, AARP, the nation's leading organization for people 50 and older, believes that manageable changes can and must be made to strengthen the program.
Just how we save and strengthen the program should be a subject of public debate - debate, hopefully free of the "Social Security is broke," "Social Security is bankrupt," "Social Security is busted" doomsday type of rhetoric.
The question is: "What need we do to guarantee the full 100 percent of benefits promised?" Here is where the public debate must focus. The options are not complicated and here are a few for con-sid-er-a-tion:
a. Raise the payroll tax. (Not an attractive option for those already paying a very high "flat tax" out of their total earnings.)
b. Require continued contributions from high wage earners above the present $68,400 cap. (not attractive to high wage earners.)
c. Tax the benefits of middle income retirees at 100 percent of benefits rather than the present 85 percent. (Not attractive to affected groups who already feel they have been taxed twice.)
d. Reduce the cost of living index (CPI) to save substantial federal payments. (Not attractive to the elderly who have particularly high medical and prescription drug expenditures.)
e. Increase the retirement age to 70. (Not attractive to those who have anticipated an earlier retirement and who may be physically unable to continue work.)
f. Have the Social Security trustees seek a better return on the Social Security Trust Fund, now held exclusively in treasury bonds. (Not attractive to those who worry about "big government" making too many decisions).
g. Pay down the over $5 trillion federal debt with anticipated government budget surpluses, making direct transfers to the trust fund a possibility as other interest payments are reduced. (Not attractive to those looking for immediate tax reductions.)
h. Set up individual investment accounts for younger wage earners in order to gain a higher rate of return on investment. (The "silver bullet" option for some of the savvy, smart and, perhaps, lucky contributors). This option might completely transform Social Security from the insurance program it presently is and really needs the public's careful scrutiny.
We have been well-served by Social Security over these many years. A floor of support for retirement, for disability, and for death of a wage earner and his or her children is easily maintainable for American society. Perhaps a combination of a few of the above options, not hitting hard on any one option, will do the job. At any rate, this is the time for national debate on the future (and I believe it has a future) of Social Security.