Why Delayed Social Security Reform Costs Us

This morning, I testified before the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. Below is a lightly edited transcript of my spoken remarks. A full copy of my written testimony can be found here.

Contrary to the popular argument that we live in an age of austerity, we live in an age of extraordinary opportunity. Yet, as I argue in a new book, Dead Men Ruling, we block progress by refighting yesterday’s battles and trying to control too much an uncertain future.  As one reflection, in 2009 every dollar of revenue had been committed before that Congress walked in the doors of the Capitol.

Looking to Social Security, after three quarters of a century of continual growth, it has largely succeeded in providing basic protections to most, though not all, older people.  Now, as psychologist Laura Carstensen at the Stanford Center on Longevity suggests, we should be redesigning our institutions around the new possibilities that improved healthcare, reduced physical demands, and long lives provide.  But the eternal automatic growth of Social Security is not conditioned on any assessment of society’s opportunities or needs.  Not making best use of the talents of people of all ages.  Not child poverty or educational failures or the incidence of Alzheimer’s or autism.

Let me focus on three problems caused by this past, rather than future, focus:

Unequal Justice

Social Security redistributes in many ways, both progressive and regressive.  And in many ways, it fails to provide equal justice.

Among the most outrageous, working single parents, often abandoned mothers, are forced to pay for spousal and survivor benefits they cannot receive, often receiving at least $100,000 fewer lifetime benefits than some who don’t work, pay less Social Security tax, and raise no children.

Similarly, the system discriminates against two-earner couples, spouses who divorce before ten years of marriage, long-term workers, and those who beget or bear children before age 40.

Middle Age Retirement

People today retire for about a decade longer than they did when Social Security first started paying benefits.  The biggest winners of this multi-decade policy have been people like the witnesses at this table and members of Congress, who, if married, now get at least $300,000 in additional lifetime benefits.

But there are other consequences: a decline in employment, the rate of growth of GDP and personal income, as well as lower Social Security benefits for the truly old.

Meanwhile, within a couple of decades, close to one-third of the adult population will be on Social Security for one-third or more of their adult lives.  There is no financial system, public or private, that can provide so many years of retirement for such a large share of the population without severe repercussions for individuals’ well-being in retirement and the workers upon whose backs the system relies.

The Impact on the Young

Today, lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits approximate $1 million for a couple with average incomes throughout their working lives, Rising by about $18,000 a year, benefits for a couple in 2030 a couple are scheduled to grow to about $1 1/3 million.

Meanwhile, the rate of return on contributions falls continually for each generation.  Each year of delayed reform shifts more burdens to younger generations from older ones, with the largest impact on groups like blacks and Hispanics, in part because they comprise a larger share of those future generations with lower returns.

Summary

In summary, each year of delay in reforming Social Security:

  • Continues a pattern of unequal justice under the law;
  • Threatens the well-being of the truly old;
  • Increases the share of benefits paid to the middle aged;
  • Leads government to spend ever less on education and other investments;
  • Contributes to higher nonemployment, lower personal income and revenues; and
  • Increases the burden that is shifted to the young and to people of color.


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