Lurking in the Fine Print Is Social Security’s Demise

Posted March 4, 2005 at 2:28pm

At least the Young Republicans attending Senator Rick Santorum’s town hall meeting last month were willing to tell it straight when they chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Social Security has got to go.”

The president instead prefers to promote his plan by combining false statements (“on the road to bankruptcy,” “flat bust”) about Social Security with false hopes about private accounts. The saying is “the devil is in the details,” but in the case of the president’s plans for Social Security the dismantling is in the details.

Private accounts make the long-term solvency of Social Security worse, not better. According to the Social Security Actuary, the Social Security system will have enough money to pay full benefits until 2042, and 73 percent of benefits after that. The Congressional Budget Office says Social Security can pay full benefits until 2052, and 78 percent of benefits after that. But if the president’s private account proposal were enacted, it would divert nearly $5 trillion from Social Security’s trust fund over 20 years. Under SSA’s estimates, that change would make Social Security unable to pay full benefits 11 years sooner, in 2031. The president’s proposal also accelerates the date we begin using reserves in the Social Security trust fund to pay benefits, from 2018 to 2012.

Private accounts would divert money from Social Security and require massive new borrowing. Because the president’s private accounts would divert so much money from Social Security’s trust fund, we would need to borrow trillions of dollars in order to pay current beneficiaries the benefits they earned. As a result, our nation’s debt would be higher for at least the next 60 years — and our children and grandchildren would be stuck with the bill.

Private accounts would take a huge bite out of an individual’s guaranteed Social Security benefit. According to a White House briefing, private account holders would be required to pay back all of the money diverted from the Social Security trust fund to their private accounts plus three percent interest (the bond rate the funds would have earned), in the form of a reduction in their monthly Social Security check. That “offset” would take back 70 percent or more of the total value of the account when the private account holder retires.

Because private accounts actually make any shortfall in Social Security trust funds worse, benefit cuts are an integral part of nearly all privatization plans. In fact, they are embedded in the plan President Bush calls a “good blueprint.” Under this approach, future benefits would be linked directly to an increase in consumer price indexes, rather than the current wage-based calculations. This would result in a benefit cut for all workers, even those who chose not to have accounts, and for younger workers it would add up to a $152,000 cut over their lifetimes.

Details of the president’s proposals would make it all but impossible for a private-account holder to overcome both of these massive cuts to their Social Security benefit. The president claims private accounts will be something “you own, and the government can never take away.” But in fact, under his proposal, individuals would have very little control over their accounts. According to White House descriptions, the government would hold and manage the private accounts, selecting the Wall Street firms that get to manage your money. Investments would be limited to a small number (three to five to start) of government-selected investment options and would, by default, shift to more conservative investments as you age.

Currently, Social Security on average replaces 40 percent of pre-retirement income. The president’s combination of private accounts and reduced Social Security benefits would replace roughly 20 percent of pre-retirement income by 2075, with only a tiny portion of this coming from Social Security benefits themselves. The end result of privatization would be clear — the dismantling of Social Security.

What are the next steps to truly address Social Security? The president has put the question of diverting money from Social Security into private accounts before Congress and the American people. Democrats have answered, “No dismantling by diverting money from Social Security.” Joined by the most massive alliance of citizen groups in decades, we are taking the details of the president’s privatization to the American people through a national grass-roots offensive. As I saw firsthand in three town halls in my district last month, citizens are responding. All ages understand the value of Social Security. The more that young people hear about the president’s proposals for government managed private accounts, the less they support them. Support dwindles still further when they learn about the massive debt their generation would shoulder if the president’s privatization becomes law.

Once the American people have fully answered the question the president has put before them and private accounts that dismantle Social Security are off the table, Democrats remain the strongest advocates of preserving Social Security for all future generations and will be the first at the table to act on a true bi-partisan basis to make that happen.

In order to fix something, you have to believe in it. You have to believe that Social Security has not caused “dependency,” nor stifled “ownership.” Instead it has created for millions of senior citizens, as well as for millions of disabled Americans and surviving spouses and children, an independence they have earned. All over the country, senior citizens have been vigorously reminding us about the value of that independence in their own lives. Future generations have a right to the same.

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) is the ranking member on the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.