People wonder how government could ignore problems like those that led to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, but the truth is that officials have long been turning a blind eye to many looming disasters besides the nation’s roughly 75,000 structurally deficient highway spans.
Consider our Social Security system. Each year, the nonpartisan Social Security Trustees details the program’s sorry financial prospects. The latest report concluded that the program – which consumes more than one-fifth of the total budget – will begin paying out more in benefits than it takes in as taxes in just 10 years.
At that time, Social Security will begin drawing down its “trust fund,” which means it will demand additional tax dollars from the general revenue to meet its obligations. By 2041, when the trust fund is exhausted, Congress will have to hike payroll taxes or starting slashing benefits for seniors.
Congress has known about this problem for decades. You could choose any trustees report from the last 10 years, and, while the dates and numbers may change slightly, the bottom line remains the same: Social Security is structurally deficient.
Social Security isn’t like climate change, where countless factors affect weather trends, human action competes with nature, and trend lines must be discerned from thousands of years of information. Social Security is straightforward. How much money goes into the system depends on how many people are working in the United States. How much is spent depends on how many people qualify as beneficiaries.
The trends that determine these outcomes are already in motion. People are living longer, which means they are collecting more Social Security checks. The baby boomers are getting ready to retire, dramatically expanding the ranks of the retired.
And fertility rates in the United States have been, and remain, relatively low, which means there are not enough workers coming into the system to pay for the growing number of beneficiaries.
Unless there is a major, unexpected demographic shift, we can predict Social Security’s future. Social Security began as a pyramid, but increasingly resembles a tower. The pyramid, with its wide base, could stand; a top-heavy tower cannot.
Policy-makers know this but have failed to act. Of course, a financial crisis in Social Security isn’t like a bridge collapse. No one will lose his or her life. Yet it will have serious consequences for the economy. It has real meaning for those who are counting on Social Security for retirement income and workers who will have to pay to prop up the ailing system.
There have been countless hearings and commissions to study the problem and consider potential solutions, but the essential options are limited. Policy-makers can increase revenues into Social Security by raising taxes, issuing new debt or cutting other programs to free up money.
They can also reduce benefits by raising the retirement age or providing lower subsidies to more affluent seniors. Or they can fundamentally alter the system to prefund future benefits so that beneficiaries no longer depend on incoming tax revenues for their payments.
Only the last option will make this program structurally sound. So long as Social Security remains a transfer program, taking from one group to give to another, it remains vulnerable. The only way to know that obligations will be met is to prepare to meet those obligations immediately.
This year, once again, the trustees calmly urged policy-makers to take action to address Social Security’s looming problems. Doing so is fairer: It will allow for “a gradual phasing in of the necessary changes” and for “adjustments” to be “spread over more generations.” There is another virtue in timely action.
Ten years down the road, policy-makers won’t have to answer the most uncomfortable question. Why have you ignored this problem for so long?
Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.”