Editor's note: George Kennedy will be taking the next few weeks off. Look for his column to return at the end of August.
My fellow liberals are beginning to worry about Social Security. Now it’s true that liberals are worriers by nature. That’s one reason we favor things like health insurance for everyone and guaranteed pensions. Sometimes we see trouble that’s really a mirage. This time, though, I’m worried that the worriers actually have something to worry about.
(Disclosure: A critic might say I’m even more biased than usual on this because I’m a recipient. My snout is in the trough. On the other hand, nobody’s even suggesting taking anything away from us current oldsters. After all, we vote. They’re really talking about hurting the next generations.)
Here, for just one example of worry, is William Greider, a smart guy and a certified lefty, writing in The Nation:
“In setting up his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his intentions are widely understood among Washington insiders. The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink.”
He points out that the co-chairs of that commission are Republican former senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, who as an aide to Bill Clinton negotiated with Newt Gingrich to partially privatize Social Security. That deal fell apart. Maybe the current worries will blow away, too; but it’s probably significant that the No.2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, Steny Hoyer, has talked about raising the retirement age.
The apparent rationale is that Social Security is a drag on the federal deficit and is headed for bankruptcy. Both those beliefs, it turns out, are wrong.
I went to the journalist’s favorite research tool, Google, in search of actual, credible information. On the Social Security Network website, sponsored by the nonpartisan Century Foundation, I found some.
In fact, Social Security has a current budget surplus of $2.5 trillion. The best current projection is that the surplus will continue to grow for another 15 years or so, and pay full benefits until at least 2037. After that, barring changes, it will still be able to pay 75 percent of promised benefits forever, or at least for the 75 years the Social Security Administration is required to project.
One change that could happen, of course, is that the economy could start growing again. That would push those dates farther into the future. But let’s keep worrying.
Another fact is that the current average benefit is just $13,860 a year, which is not far above the official poverty level and places the United States 25th among the 30 richest nations. A poll taken last year showed that nearly half of recipients rely on Social Security for most or all of their income.
When Rep. Hoyer and others point out that we’re living longer — and thus drawing Social Security longer — another fact becomes relevant. That is that while the life expectancy of a white female born today is 80.6 years, the life expectancy of a black male born today is 69.7 years. Wealthy Americans on average live 8 years longer than the poor.
So it seems clear to me that we and the National Commission should be focused on ways to strengthen Social Security, not cut it. That, Century Foundation experts say, wouldn’t be so hard. One way, for instance, would be to lift the cap that now limits the payroll tax to the first $106,000 of income. Another would be to raise that tax by just 1 percent. Another would be to dedicate the estate tax to Social Security.
I have a feeling – call it a worry – that it’s not too early to tell our rulers to keep their hands off our children’s Social Security.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.