Sometimes, the answer is staring you in the face and, for whatever reason, it goes unnoticed. Or, if not unnoticed, then ignored. In the case of Social Security, the reason is in large part because both political parties are so dug in to their political foxholes that they can’t interpret the landscape around them.
Americans, themselves, aren’t immune to the problem, as revealed in a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll found fierce resistance to stabilizing the federal retirement program by raising the age at which beneficiaries can claim benefits or by reducing cost-of-living increases.
However, the poll did find broad support among those over 50 for raising the cap on earnings that are taxed to fund the Social Security program. Today, payroll taxes are levied only on the first $113,700 of income, meaning that lower-income earners pay taxes on their entire wages while those earning more pay nothing on their remaining income.
The poll showed that 61 percent of people supported raising the cap, including 73 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans. And, indeed, it is an obvious place to look. It is potentially fair and could help stabilize the program.
Politically, though, it is probably unsalable, at least on its own. Republicans in Congress are all but certain to oppose that idea, no matter how much support it has from their constituents. And that is where the solution to Social Security’s funding problem lies: increase revenues for the program while also reducing its costs by raising the age at which Americans can claim benefits.
It’s called compromise and, as it happens, it’s also fair.
When Social Security was created in 1935, benefits were timed to help Americans who were far closer to the end of their lives than most are today. The fact is that Americans are living longer and, in many cases, working longer. It is not unfair to raise the age at which benefits may kick in, with possible exceptions for some physically demanding occupations.
Anyone who wants Social Security to remain in good health knows that action is needed. The trust fund that supports the retirement and disability programs is projected to run out of money in 20 years. At that point, the program would collect enough money to pay only 75 percent of benefits. If Congress fails to act, payouts would be automatically cut by 25 percent.
There is a way out, but it requires everyone to accept a share of pain: wealthier Americans and congressional Republicans by accepting a higher threshold on incomes taxed for Social Security, beneficiaries and Democrats on the age at which benefits may be paid.
Given last month’s government shutdown, it’s hard to be optimistic that there are enough adults in Congress to get this done – at least not until the crisis is upon us. But the longer we wait, the more painful the solution will have to be. It would be smart to get it done now.