An Aging America Must Act Now

Posted March 4, 2005 at 2:20pm

Everyone agrees on this point: America is an aging society. The first of the baby boomers will start retiring in just three years, and the number of retired Americans will continue to grow with each passing year. The graying of America will place new pressures on the federal budget and the economy and will create unique challenges that the country has never before faced. We must begin to address these challenges now to ensure that we can meet the retirement needs of current and future generations in a fiscally responsible way.

The foundation of retirement security is the strength and solvency of the Social Security safety net. Social Security’s “pay-as-you-go” financing structure worked well when the population was young, but it is not sustainable when the population is aging. In 1950, there were more than 16 workers paying into the system to support each retiree; today there are around three workers per retiree, and when today’s 30-year olds retire, there will be only two.

The inversion of the demographic pyramid spells trouble for Social Security. The program will go into the red 13 years from now and cannot afford to pay promised benefits to many of today’s younger workers. Those who will be affected: the children and grandchildren of today’s retirees.

President Bush has rightly recognized that Social Security’s insecurity should not just be passed along to younger generations and has moved the Social Security debate from politics to policy. The president’s proposal to create voluntary personal retirement accounts would not affect anyone age 55 and older — these individuals will receive every penny of benefits they have earned. Those under the age of 55 would have the opportunity to build a retirement nest-egg to supplement their Social Security benefits.

The president has acknowledged that personal accounts should be considered within the context of a comprehensive plan that puts Social Security on sound financial footing once and for all. He has shown a willingness to work with Congress by putting all options on the table except for increasing the payroll tax rate.

Since Social Security was created in the 1930s, Congress has increased payroll tax rates 20 times. Originally, the payroll tax was 2 percent of income. Today, it stands at 12.4 percent — that’s $1 out of every $8 earned. And still the program faces financial insolvency. With only three workers supporting each retiree, we cannot tax our way out of the problem. We must find alternative ways to strengthen the program.

Strengthening Social Security also means updating the program to better meet the evolving needs of those who rely on its benefits. Social Security was created during the Great Depression when the average family, the labor force and the economy were very different. Americans deserve a program that reflects today’s families and today’s needs.

Although Social Security is an important source of income for millions of seniors, it was never intended to be the only source of income during retirement. Instead, the program’s founders envisioned that Social Security benefits would provide a floor of income to supplement employer pensions and personal savings. However, today only half of all workers have access to employer pension plans, and the personal savings rate remains extremely low compared to historical standards. That is why Social Security should not be examined in isolation. We must simultaneously discuss how to enhance pension and personal savings so that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of retirement security can become a reality.

Health care will also become more important as the society continues to age. As medical and technological advances help people live longer, seniors will need more money to manage chronic and long-term care needs. The irony of our current system is that we have far more coverage for unexpected, acute health care needs, yet there is much less focus on the health care needs that are expected with old age. It is time to rethink the nation’s health care policies, so that people can begin to put money away when they are younger to better take care of themselves when they are older.

The issues raised by our aging society are interrelated and should be examined together as we move forward. If we confine ourselves to yesterday’s solution of simply moving pieces within the Social Security box, we will have missed an opportunity to address the same structural problems we know we will inevitably face later. The president has given us a rare opportunity to fundamentally examine government structures, and we should seize that opportunity.

The Ways and Means Committee will hold hearings on these issues to further examine the broader challenge and develop solutions to meet the needs of Americans, young and old. Our nation can emerge stronger and healthier if we approach this assignment responsibly. I look forward to working with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to meet this challenge.

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.