Railing against reform

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Social Security is no longer the ‘third rail” of American politics. Legislators no longer touch it and die. At least not instantaneously.

But this isn’t the first time Congress has seriously undertaken to change the terms of our social contract with Social Security. Over its history, changes have been considered and made on several occasions to keep the program financially solvent for what was the foreseeable future at the time.

I wasn’t plugged into the debate when the last big set of changes were made in 1983. I was 26 then, and frankly, it just wasn’t on my radar.

So I can’t say whether older adults at the time were up in arms about the 1983 proposals, or whether advocacy organizations were sending out screaming mailings urging members to write or call their congressmen to complain.

If they were, it didn’t stop Congress from changing the date I was eligible for full Social Security from my 65th birthday until I turned 66-and-a-half.

But you know, even if I had been aware of the debate — and of the effect it would eventually have on my retirement income 40 years later — I still don’t think it would have energized me to call Congress.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking about Social Security. In fact, I was still in law school and thinking about interviewing for my first real job.

And with 40-plus years ahead of me before likely retirement — and, with God’s help, 50, 60 or even 70 years of life potentially to live — I doubt I would have seen the 18-month delay in Social Security to be particularly unfair or unreasonable.

I bring this up because many of the proposals now being made to extend Social Security’s solvency and address its looming shortfall are of the same nature.

That is, they are generally crafted to spare all current retirees — and even those within 10 years of retirement — from any ill effects, and to focus most changes on today’s youth and middle-aged workforce.

Furthermore, surveys of young people today typically find that they have very low expectations of receiving much of anything from Social Security when they reach retirement age.

That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t still be entitled to it; but it does suggest they already understand that the government safety net will not make for a comfortable landing if they don’t also save diligently for their own retirement. And that’s a good thing, really.

So my question is this: why are the most vocal critics of today’s proposals for adjusting Social Security the older adults who will almost certainly not be affected?

And if you say it’s because they care about the future for their grandchildren, what about the fact that economists appear to believe it’s those very grandchildren (or their children) who will suffer the most if we can’t agree to make even relatively modest changes to Social Security now?

The financial shortfalls that are looming won’t come to pass for many decades. If we care about our progeny, that should be an incentive to act; not to fight action.

I am not a maven on this topic. I’m just trying to strike what I sense is a reasonable balance.

But if you’d like to hear from a real maven, please do join me at one of the Beacon’s upcoming 50+Expos, where Dr. Charles Blahous, a trustee of Social Security and Medicare, will lay out the challenges facing Social Security, discuss a variety of proposed solutions, and explain their likely effects in a clear, concise manner.

See the facing page for details about these events. I hope you will join us there.