Raising the Social Security retirement age has become as close to a consensus position as exists in American politics. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) supports it. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that “we could and should consider a higher retirement age.” And for a while, I agreed with them, too. It seemed obvious: People live longer today, and so they should work later into life. But as I’ve looked at the issue, I’ve decided that I was wrong. So let me be the skunk at the party. We should leave the retirement age alone. In fact, we should leave Social Security alone — unless we’re making it more, rather than less, generous.
Social Security provides disability insurance and survivor’s benefits, but when people talk about it, they tend to be referring to its role as a program that provides income support to retirees. The average monthly benefit of $1,170 replaces about 39 percent of the person’s pre-retirement earnings. Over the next two decades, the “replacement rate” is slated to drop to 31 percent. That is less than in most developed countries — the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks it 25 out of 30 member nations.
The system, in other words, is not that generous, and it’s becoming less so every year. The age at which you can begin collecting full Social Security benefits is moving from 65 to 67, as part of a deal struck in the 1980s to ensure the system’s solvency. And all this at a time when employers are getting rid of defined-benefit pensions, which means that most workers will have no guaranteed retirement income except for Social Security.
Which brings us to Social Security’s financial “crisis.” The issue isn’t that Social Security is spending too much or that we’re living too long. It’s that we’re not having enough children (or letting in enough immigrants). As Stephen C. Goss, the system’s chief actuary, has written, Social Security projects an imbalance “because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman.” That means there are relatively fewer young people paying for the old people. “Importantly,” Goss continues, “this shortfall is basically stable after 2035.” In other words, we only have to fix Social Security once.
The size of that fix is significant, but not astonishing. Over the next 75 years, the shortfall will be equal to about 0.7 percent of gross domestic product. How much is 0.7 percent of GDP? To put that in perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that it’s about as much as George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich will cost over the same period. Saying we can afford those cuts — which is the consensus Republican position — but not Social Security’s outlay is nonsensical. Coming up with 0.7 percent of GDP isn’t a crisis. It’s a question of priorities…
“The revenue loss over the next 75 years just from extending the tax cuts for people making over $250,000 — the top 2 percent of Americans — would be about as large as the entire Social Security shortfall over this period,” write Kathy Ruffing and Paul N. Van de Water at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Members of Congress cannot simultaneously claim that the tax cuts for people at the top are affordable while the Social Security shortfall constitutes a dire fiscal threat.”
We do have fiscal problems in this country: health care, for instance. We have to get growth in that sector down or we’ll bankrupt the country. But that’s not the case with Social Security. Social Security is just a question of priorities. And the legislators who are saying that we can extend the Bush tax cuts without offsets but that we need massive benefit cuts in Social Security are showing where their priorities lie, not stating a sad economic reality.