‘Complacent Inaction’ Leads to Broken Promises

Posted December 5, 2003 at 11:50am

By Rep. Clay Shaw Our nation faces many important challenges: fighting terror, creating jobs and strengthening the economy. With so many pressing needs, it could be easy to say we can wait to strengthen Social Security, but this would be a grave mistake. Complacent inaction only increases the cost of a solution and risks saddling workers with a legacy of debt and broken promises.

Social Security is the safeguard of America’s families. It protects children and spouses when a worker dies or becomes disabled and provides most seniors with their main source of income. Without Social Security, almost one out of two seniors would live in poverty. That is why we must address Social Security’s financial challenges and ensure its promises are kept.

In 1935, when Social Security was created, America looked a lot different than it does today. Almost 7 percent of Americans were age 65 and older, families were larger, and there were more than 40 workers supporting each retiree. Today, more than 12 percent of the population is over 65. People are living longer, families are having fewer children, and as a result there are only 3.3 workers for each retiree. By 2030, there will be just over two workers for each retiree.

These eye-opening demographics matter, because Social Security is not a savings plan, it is a pay-as-you-go system. Workers pay a portion of their hard-earned wages to provide Social Security benefits for retirees, individuals with disabilities, survivors and their families. As the number of workers supporting each retiree declines, Social Security’s finances worsen.

According to Social Security’s independent scorekeepers, benefits paid by the system will exceed revenues in just 15 years. If left alone, by the time today’s 28-year-olds hit their full retirement age, Social Security will be able to pay out only 73 percent of benefits. Over the next 75 years, the total cash shortfall we face in paying promised benefits equals more than $90,000 for every man, woman and child in America today.

Those who dismiss problems 40 years away and believe little or no change is necessary are making political hay on the backs of our children and grandchildren who would face dramatic benefit cuts or tax increases. The consequences of waiting until the crisis is at hand can be seen in countries like Germany and France, which are now forced to consider so-called “modest” measures — suspending cost-of-living adjustments, delaying benefit payments, and requiring people to work longer to receive a full pension.

Rather than bury our heads in the sand, we must act to create a sustainable solution for Social Security. To the degree they are talking about Social Security’s future at all, some Democrat leaders and presidential candidates have suggested increasing the level of wages subject to Social Security tax and even other tax increases. At best, this would only defer the day of reckoning a few years. Tax increases and benefit cuts have been tried before and failed to create firm financial footing for Social Security.

[IMGCAP(1)] Instead, we must look to successful alternatives and learn from the experience of countries like England, Australia, and Sweden. Theses countries have ensured that both old and young alike will receive fair benefits in retirement by adding personal accounts to their pension systems.

Some policymakers try to demonize plans that include personal accounts as “privatization.” This is a dishonest description, because no plan introduced in legislation would replace Social Security with a private entity or terminate an individual’s right to their federally entitled benefits. Despite such efforts to mislead, Americans understand the value of giving workers the opportunity to own and control personal accounts that build a nestegg for retirement and help ensure Social Security’s financial future. According to a recent Gallup poll, 62 percent of Americans favor personal accounts.

Social Security’s impartial experts have proven that America’s support of personal accounts is justified. Contrary to claims that plans with personal accounts would harm Social Security and cut benefits, numerous proposals with personal accounts have been shown to bolster Social Security’s balance sheet, create sustainable program financing and provide higher benefits than could be paid under current law.

My Social Security Guarantee Plus Plan (H.R. 75) exemplifies how personal accounts would ensure payment of full promised benefits and even provide enhanced benefits without individual investment risk. Under my plan, workers would voluntarily invest tax credits equaling a portion of their wages into a choice of diversified portfolios. When they retire, they would receive the higher of the benefit provided by the personal account or their full Social Security benefit. If they die before retirement, the personal account would pass to their family tax free. Social Security’s experts have evaluated my plan and confirmed it saves Social Security for the next 75 years and beyond. This plan also enables us to enhance benefits for elderly and disabled widows and divorced spouses.

While there is no easy answer to addressing Social Security’s massive cash shortfall, personal accounts cost less in the long run. Rather than simply raising taxes to pay full benefits, these accounts save funds today to pay future benefits and harness the power of compound interest and the greater returns available through safe investment in America’s economy. Personal accounts make the fiscal choices Democrats and Republicans must face easier, not harder.

In the coming year, Americans will vote again on leaders who will be responsible for our nation’s future. We must and should debate these issues nationwide and challenge each candidate to identify the solutions they support to secure Social Security’s future. It’s not enough for candidates to say what they’re against, it’s what they’re for that matters.

Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.