Social Security needs protection

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 12, 2010

As the Social Security program celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, now is the time to strengthen and protect it. The nation’s outsized deficit is high on the list of domestic problems most in need of a solution.

From the president’s deficit commission, meeting throughout the year to figure out what to do, to the America Speaks group that held multiple town hall meetings, experts are zeroing in on the skyrocketing deficit number. And we keep hearing that cutting Social Security benefits needs to be part of the solution.

Hold on a second. The budget deficit absolutely needs to be tackled, and Social Security needs to be strengthened for the long run. But just about everything else in this line of thinking is flawed. Social Security is not in crisis. Moderate adjustments can ensure Social Security is strong for our children and grandchildren. And it has not added to the deficit.

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With these assumptions dismissed, it’s pretty tough to argue that closing the budget gap by targeting Social Security benefits would be either fair or warranted.

Financed by money that hard-working people contribute over their working lives, Social Security is the one reliable, guaranteed source of income for older Americans and other beneficiaries.

It provides a foundation of retirement income security for them to build upon, and it also offers economic security for disabled workers and the spouses and children of deceased workers. The benefits Social Security provides keep millions of Americans out of poverty.

Today, Social Security is financially strong and in no immediate danger of going broke, as alarmists would have us believe. In fact, over the years it has built up a surplus of $2.5 trillion. Even without changes, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2037 and nearly three-quarters of promised benefits for decades beyond.

Social Security needs changes so that it can continue to pay the benefits that have been promised to current and future generations — our children and grandchildren. The changes do not have to be drastic, but the sooner we act, the easier and more manageable the solutions will be.

With the other pillars of retirement security crumbling over the past decade — pensions, savings and investments, for example — Social Security will likely play an increasingly vital role. Although it was never meant to be a worker’s sole source of retirement income, it is the strongest and most reliable of the pillars. Among seniors, 20 percent of married couples and about 41 percent of singles rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income.

Any changes to Social Security should be addressed as part of a broader conversation about how to help Americans prepare for a secure retirement. Companies can go out of business. Pensions can be terminated. The stock market can take a nose dive. Social Security benefits are always there — in good times and bad.

Cutting benefits to reduce the deficit or converting Social Security to private accounts is not the answer. Americans cannot afford the social insecurity that will come from risky proposals that put everyone’s retirement in jeopardy.

If Washington wants to restore confidence in our nation’s budget picture, they should deal with what has really caused our federal deficit. The fact is American workers’ contributions pay for Social Security, and it hasn’t added anything to the deficit.

AARP believes that Social Security benefits for future generations should continue to be earned, guaranteed, inflation-protected and last a lifetime. For three-quarters of a century, Social Security has been a guaranteed floor of income security.

After a lifetime of hard work, Americans and their families should collect on the retirement benefits they’ve earned and families in which a worker dies prematurely or becomes disabled should continue to have some measure of economic security.

There is no good reason to break that promise.

Bruce W. Brice Sr. is the state president of AARP. He is a Natchez resident.