Millions of older Americans swear by Social Security.
That’s because for them, it has been a great program. The average American who retired in 1960 could expect to receive seven times what he or she paid into the system.
How is that possible with a program that invests its money conservatively in long-term government securities? The answer has to do with the way Social Security has evolved over the years, with low initial tax rates, combined with expanding benefits.
It’s a structure that is quite rewarding for those who participated in the program early. But today’s recipients won’t do as well. And in some cases, they may never get back what they put into Social Security.
This is why some critics equate the program to a Ponzi scheme.
A recent report from The Associated Press shows that today’s higher-income retirees should not expect to receive what they put in to Social Security. Lower-income workers continue to come out ahead, but not to the degree of retirees from earlier eras.
(We must note that these assessments are generalizations based on average life expectancy. The longer you live, the more you will get out of Social Security.)
It’s no secret that the long-range math of Social Security doesn’t add up. For years, the program has taken in more money annually than it pays out. But today, that’s no longer the case. And based on existing data and trends, the program’s cash reserves will evaporate completely in 2033.
There are two basic ways to beef up the solvency of Social Security. One is to boost payroll taxes in order to generate revenue. The other is to trim benefits, thereby reducing expenses.
Neither option, as you might suspect, is popular. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has failed to act, despite ample warnings that it must do so — the sooner the better.
In Washington, Social Security is often referred to as the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you are dead, politically at least. Beneficiaries are older citizens, who tend to vote at a higher rate than younger people.
But such an attitude regarding Social Security is obviously based on the notion that it pays off for recipients. If the benefits of the program fail to cover what goes into it, public support for Social Security will evaporate.
Judging from the latest evidence, America’s love affair with Social Security soon may begin to fade. When that happens, Washington politicians will find it even more difficult to explain their inaction.
Plus, the simple fixes cited above won’t address the underlying issue of a system that’s taking in more than it’s paying out. Congress has a huge task looming before it regarding Social Security. So why isn’t anything happening?