Careful Reform of Social Security Can Preserve America's Most Successful Domestic Program

By Rother, John | Aging Today, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Careful Reform of Social Security Can Preserve America's Most Successful Domestic Program


Rother, John, Aging Today


As the new Congress considers deficit reduction and entitlement reforms, ASA members should keep in mind that most elders rely on the guaranteed benefits of Social Security for financial survival. In the future, Americans will need Social Security more than ever.

But protecting Social Security from unwarranted cutbacks doesn't mean the 75-year-old program should remain frozen in time. Advocates should view me unfolding debate as an opportunity to fine-tune Social Security to better serve families in the 21st century.

STEPS TO REFORMING SOCIAL SECURITY

We need to strengthen Social Security's finances for the long haul. Careful reforms can increase public confidence in Social Security, and keep this essential program strong for our children and grandchildren, while protecting current beneficiaries.

For this to happen, however, the following key principles should shape the debate:

* Benefits must be fair to all who contribute similar amounts. In particular, many working women are treated inequitably under a benefit formula that was designed with a typical 1930s family - one breadwinner and a dependent wife - in mind. Changes can reduce inequities that result from modern two-earner lifestyles.

* Benefits must be enhanced for those who need them most. In an era of rising costs, those on the bottom rung need enough to live on.

* Retirement security - not arbitrary budget targets - must be the guiding light of reform. As a result of the recession and the erosion of defined benefit pensions, retirement security has fallen drastically for most of the workforce, including the middle class. Policymakers must avoid benefit changes that weaken overall retirement security, even as they work to stabilize Social Security for the long term.

SOCIAL SECURITY AND THE DEFICIT DEBATE

AARP has repeatedly pointed out that Social Security is not the cause of current budget deficits. Starting around 2015, however, Social Security will begin to spend down its trust fund, a process that will require a growing share of general revenues.

Like it or not, that means Social Security cannot escape the budget debate entirely. But fiscal hawks must remember that Social Security remains enormously popular for a reason: those modest checks help real people pay real bills every month.

Social Security provides at least half the income for two out of three retired beneficiaries. For about one in five retirees, Social Security is their only income.

What are the alternatives? Traditional pensions are not coming back. Homes continue to fall in value. Savings rates remain paltry, and half the labor force has no access to a retirement plan at work. People lucky enough to have investments must endure the ups and downs of Wall Street.

Working later in life can make great economic and personal sense, but not everyone has that option. Chronic unemployment for older workers has soared in the recession. In addition, the physical demands of certain jobs can be onerous for some older employees.

Increased longevity, meanwhile, poses new risks that individuals will outlive their savings. Rising costs for healthcare make this fear all too credible.

Careful reforms to Social Security can help, such as by reducing inequities in benefits. For example, the surviving member of a dual-income couple faces a much larger reduction in benefits upon the spouse's death than does the surviving member of a single-earner couple with similar contributions. …

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