The chairman of the Federal Reserve ruffled political feathers when he stated the obvious: The government can’t pay all the benefits it has promised under Social Security.
In coming weeks, the Social Security Board of Trustees will release an annual report echoing Mr. Greenspan’s warning. This is old news: For years, the trustees’ report has warned that looming Social Security deficits must be addressed.
These warnings are a nuisance to the politicians who seem to be meticulously avoiding a serious discussion of Social Security problems. Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat — then still running to lead the executive branch that administers Social Security — called Mr. Greenspan’s remarks an “outrage.”
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, also chose to avoid the real problem Mr. Greenspan highlighted. Instead, he tried to link Mr. Greenspan’s suggestion that future benefits might need to be trimmed with the current budget deficits that he blames on Mr. Bush: “The wrong way to cut the deficit is to cut Social Security benefits.”
Candidates can try to spin Mr. Greenspan’s comments for political advantage, but American women can’t afford to ignore his warning.
Women have the most at stake in the Social Security debate. We live longer than men, have lower average incomes, and have fewer opportunities to save for retirement during our working years. Consequently, 1 in 3 unmarried senior women depend on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their retirement incomes. As Mr. Greenspan suggested, an honest assessment of the facts reveals women should be concerned about Social Security’s future.
In about 10 years, Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. In 40 years, when today’s young workers begin retiring, Social Security will be able to pay only about two-thirds of promised benefits. Those retirees will either face drastically reduced benefits or payroll taxes will skyrocket — a frightening prospect given that Social Security taxes already claim 12.4 percent of each worker’s wages.
Over the next four decades, payroll tax rates would have to increase by nearly half to pay all currently promised benefits. And as rising payroll taxes increase dependency on Social Security by crowding out private investment, it will become even more difficult to address Social Security’s flaws.
We can act in time to avoid this nightmare. Allowing current workers to use a portion of their Social Security taxes to fund personal retirement accounts would begin addressing Social Security’s long-term financial problems. Workers would invest in bonds and stocks and accrue a significant nest egg throughout their working lives, which could be drawn upon at retirement.
In addition to giving workers the chance to accrue savings, this reform would prefund future benefits, making Social Security sustainable over the long run. Instead of relying on taxes from future workers to pay benefits, retirees would draw upon assets built up over decades.
Such a plan would take an initial infusion of resources to cover current retirees, but ultimately a more financially sound system would emerge. The initial sacrifice would be well worth the long-run payoff.
A system of personal retirement accounts benefit women in other ways. Individuals would own the assets in their accounts, so workers who die before reaching age 65 would be able to pass their assets on to loved ones. Women who take time out of the work force to care for children would continue accruing retirement savings by earning interest on previous contributions. Currently, a woman married less than 10 years has no right to future Social Security benefits her husband accrues while married. Under a system of personal accounts, those assets could be divided equally in the event of divorce.
Women need to hear how personal accounts can be incorporated into Social Security and about the consequences of allowing the system to continue as it is. Politicians aren’t the only ones disserving women by ignoring Social Security’s problems. So-called “women’s groups,” such as the National Organization for Women and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, have also failed to take the issue seriously.
Leanne Abdnor, who served on the president’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security, detailed in a recent Cato Institute paper how these women’s organizations — which all oppose personal accounts — were invited to submit their own plans for shoring up Social Security finances. No proposals were offered.
Women deserve better. Instead of allowing candidates and self-proclaimed women’s groups to ignore Social Security’s impending financial disaster, women should demand a real debate about plans to address the program’s flaws.
Politicians may wish to avoid this topic, but women can’t. We have too much at stake.