By Jay Ambrose
It’s an awful, ugly presidential election year in which the remaining candidates are bad, bad, bad, bad and OK.
The trouble is that at least a couple of them have a chance of being elected while some others confuse matters with miswrought ideas. Today’s subject of concern is Social Security, a wondrous program that can’t be financially sustained minus serious adjustments.
Let’s start on the Democratic side with Hillary Clinton, who says Social Security benefits should be increased for widows and extended to those who left jobs to care for children or other family members. Right now, people only pay Social Security taxes on income less than $118,500. To finance what she wants to do, she would raise that cap.
Next comes Bernie Sanders, who says Social Security does not create any deficits because it has a $2.8 trillion surplus. He goes beyond Clinton, promising among other things that he will expand current benefits to all recipients by an average of $65 a month. To pay for it, he will, on top of other economically withering revenue adventures, strangely have everyone who makes less than $118,500 or more than $250,000 pay the full employee-employer 12.4 percent Social Security tax.
Here’s the real deal. Social Security has been creating major deficits in the united federal budget since 2010 and had a 2014 deficit of $74 billion. The program is not taking in enough revenues to cover benefit payments and, despite its name, the Social Security trust fund is not a holder of assets in which surpluses from past tax revenues reside. Those surpluses have been spent on other programs. Treasury Department borrowing is the name of the game.
Hordes of retiring, longer-living baby boomers will soon enough be cashing in, and the number of younger people paying the taxes to finance it all is shrinking. The already bloated $19 trillion debt will be getting monstrously fatter in a couple of years. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office says beware of a fiscal crisis.
The Clinton-Sanders additional spending amounts to dousing the fire with gasoline, and raising the cap has a problem minus a fundamental rewrite of Social Security policies. Benefits are determined by how much you pay in taxes, and when the rich pay more, they get more, it has been pointed out.
It’s true the rich get a lesser percentage return than the more needy and that new laws could end benefits beyond a certain income. But, as is shown in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “Coming of the New Deal,” the move would violate a notable Franklin D. Roosevelt objective. He said that, by paying specified taxes, everyone had a “legal, moral and political right” to collect their benefits. Because of that, he said, “no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”
Even with such new laws — and there is an argument for them — a Clinton-style rise in the cap would scarcely solve the problem, says one educational trustee of the program, and at least Sanders and Clinton have never suggested doing away with the payroll tax. That’s the vision of Republican Ted Cruz, who would very riskily have more general taxes foot the bill. He is more on target in wanting increases in the retirement age, letting people keep some of their money in personal accounts and changing the formula for initial payment amounts.
This last idea is important because the current formula is one under which someone retiring in one year could have the exact same wage background as someone retiring the year before and yet get more in benefits. The resulting expenditure growth has been enormous. The concerned, informed Republican John Kasich is in favor of the change while knowing more is needed.
Finally, let’s go to Republican Donald Trump, who has reversed himself on raising the retirement age, instituting private accounts and a one-time hit-the-rich tax. He wants to boost the economy by doing some things right but others wrong, reduce waste in ways that wouldn’t and leave benefits alone except for futilely encouraging the rich to refuse them.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.