Reforming Social Security May Be (Relatively) Easy After All

 

National Policy Analysis paper # 157 published January 1997 by The National Center for Public Policy Research

 

When the 13 members of President Clinton's Social Security Advisory Council failed to agree to one or even two sets of recommendations about how the nation can best keep Social Security solvent, most analysts considered the divided verdict as evidence that the issue of Social Security is fraught with political peril.

But does reforming Social Security have to be difficult? Probably not. Here's why:

  1. While the 13-member Social Security Advisory Committee could agree only to make three separate recommendations, evidence indicates that public sentiment is not so divided. A November 1996 poll sponsored by the non-partisan Generation X group Third Millennium and carried out by a joint Republican-Democrat team of pollsters and consultants found that the public leans heavily toward one of the three major reform options: That of keeping benefits for current retirees while permitting workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts.

    The three plans proposed by the President's Advisory Council, and their degree of public support in the poll, are:

     
    A) Partially privatize Social Security by preserving present benefits for those currently 55 and older, diverting 40% of the 12.4% payroll tax to mandatory personal retirement accounts, providing a floor benefit to future retirees of $410 or more per month, raising the retirement age to 67 in 2011 and adjusting with life expectancy, and raising the payroll tax by 1.52 percentage points beginning in 1998. This concept was supported by five members of the President's commission and supported by the public 69% in favor to 22% against. Americans over 65 supported it 50% to 32%.

    B) Study investing 40% of Social Security assets in stocks, increase the payroll tax in 2045 by 1.6 percentage points and decrease benefits slightly. This concept was supported by six members of the President's commission and opposed by the public 24%-67%. Seniors opposed it 29% to 54%.

    C) Increase workers' share of payroll taxes by 1.6 percentage points in 1998 to finance government-run individual accounts, lift the retirement age to 67 in 2011 and adjust with life expectancy, and reduce Social Security benefits for some middle- and upper-income recipients. This concept was supported by two of the 13 members of the Social Security Advisory Council and opposed by the public in the poll by 34% in favor to 58% opposed. Seniors opposed it 29% to 50%.

     

  2. Senior citizens, often cited by pundits as the voting block that won't permit politicians to meddle with Social Security, actually are far from unanimous in their confidence in the current system. A September 1996 survey done by The Polling Company found that only 62% seniors feel "extremely" or "very" confident that Social Security and Medicare benefits will remain for them throughout their retirement. Among pre-retirees -- those American older than baby boomers who have not yet retired -- this number plummets to 24%.

     

  3. Support for structural change among Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is high; their confidence in the status quo is low. In the Third Millennium poll 71% of Baby Boomers and 81% of Generation Xers supported the partial privatization plan. In The Polling Company survey, only 6% of Baby Boomers and 5% of Generation Xers were "extremely" or "very" confident about the future of Social Security and Medicare.

     

  4. Support for some kind of change in the Social Security system transcends partisan differences among the general public. According to The Polling Company survey, only 21% of Democrats, 17% of independents, and 21% of Republicans in all age groups are either "extremely" or "very" confident that Social Security and Medicare will be there for them throughout their retirement.

     

  5. The alternative to structural change is politically unpalatable. In 1955, there were 8.6 workers for every Social Security recipient. In 1995, there were 3.3. By 2040, there will be no more than two. With two paying in for every one taking out tax increases and/or benefit decreases will be mandatory if there is no structural reform. Yet politicians will be forced to vote for one or both if the system is to avoid bankruptcy.

     

  6. Public support for some Social Security reform is likely to increase as the public realizes during the course of an extended Social Security reform debate that reform could mean more money for their retirement. As analyst Gordon Jones of the Seniors Coalition notes, the average retiree receives a monthly Social Security check of approximately $800. Had they invested their Social Security taxes in the stock market, and had the stock market performed only half as well as it has, the average retiree would get more than three times their current benefits. In fact, says Jones, for high income workers the monthly benefit would have reached $11,000 per month.

Will Social Security reform be as politically safe as legislation commemorating the Fourth of July? No, but it will be no where near as perilous as most pundits insist.

 

--Amy Moritz Ridenour, president of The National Center for Public Policy Research

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