Reform of Social Security is necessary to avoid the shortfall that will begin in 20 years or so, on that point most everyone should be able to agree.
If so, can we also agree that Social Security is not on the verge of bankruptcy and the Washington naysayers are just doing their best to alarm us so that they can change the program in ways that fit their purposes? If so, then let's agree that, in this supercharged political atmosphere, nothing will change unless it is broadly supported by a majority of Americans.
That said, a recent U.S. News and World Report survey is informative. Of five potential approaches to strengthening the Social Security program, two had widespread support. The first was to increase the payroll tax paid by the employee alone from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent. According to USNWR, this would eliminate just over 50 percent of Social Security's deficit. The approach was supported by 69 percent of workers surveyed. The second was to gradually eliminate the $113,700 payroll tax cap, above which no tax currently is paid. According to USNWR, this would reduce the deficit by 71 percent. The approach was supported by 68 percent of those surveyed.
Three other approaches received little support (raising the retirement age to either 68 or 70 years of age, with only 37 percent and 28 percent support, respectively; means-testing to phase out Social Security for retirees with non-Social Security income between $55,000 and $110,000, just 31 percent support; and changing the method of making cost-of-living adjustments to the "chained" CPI-W approach, less than 30 percent support).
Given these results, one can easily construct a supportable compromise with changes so insignificant that they would be virtually undetectable to the taxpayer: First, increase the payroll tax on the employee-side only, to 7.2 percent over a 10-year period (an increase of just 0.1 percent per year). Second, raise the payroll tax cap from $113,700 to $250,000 over the same 10-year period.
As was noted in a response to my previous column on the subject of Social Security reform (December 2012), leaving the employer-side of the tax rate at its current 6.2 percent is seen as important to avoid burdening small businesses with a tax increase during a still-difficult economic recovery. Since the employee is the beneficiary of the Social Security retirement payments, it is justifiable to increase the employee rate in order to maintain a successful program while leaving the business rate unchanged. Moreover, as was also noted (and acknowledged at the time), means testing is fraught with peril. As just one example, persons who failed to save for their retirement would benefit at the expense of those who put away additional savings towards their retirement. So, since means testing is unpopular with those surveyed anyway, it's best to avoid the pitfalls and eliminate it from consideration.
This two-part approach would eliminate the lion's share (if not all) of the projected deficit in 10 years, some 10 years before the projected shortfall occurs, and would provide 10 years of growth potential to cover the future obligations due future retirees.
It is remarkable that the critics of Social Security continue to pursue the three least supported approaches (of those surveyed), rather than the two that have widespread support. Until advocates for achieving responsible reform start to advocate more aggressively for approaches that have majority support, the games will continue and little of real value will be accomplished.
Erik Smith lives in Noank.