We're regularly told how complex the national debt issue is, particularly with programs like Social Security and Medicare radically underfunded. I agree that Medicare is tough, but Social Security is fixable merely by maintaining the original intent of the program—and if more Americans developed and lived out a Christian worldview, the fix would be even easier.
The original intent of Social Security was to fund, on average, 13 years of retirement for men and 15 years for women: That was the life expectancy for 65-year-olds in 1935. A macabre fact aided the program's finances: Little more than half of men and women aged 21 were expected to make it to age 65, so everyone paid in for what some would receive.
Now, we live on average a decade longer. Congress slightly recognized this in 1983 by changing the age at which workers can receive full benefits from 65 to (in 2022) 67. The early eligibility age (a 1956 invention, originally for women only) remained at 62. Medical advances minimally warrant raising the full benefit age to 70 by 2022, and the early eligibility age to 67. The difference over time is trillions of dollars.
Ironically, the original Social Security age almost was 70 rather than 65. Roosevelt administration officials based their calculations on the experience of state pension systems, half of which had 65 as the retirement age and half of which provided benefits starting at age 70. Officials chose 65 because it was the retirement age within the Railroad Retirement System—and because it was politically popular.
The continued search for popularity may bankrupt the whole system. Raising the eligibility age could be tough on some in physically demanding jobs, but that's 8 percent at the most, according to an Urban Institute study, down from 20 percent in 1950. Special provision could be made for such workers, and for those in poor health—but with relatively few jobs requiring heavy lifting, and with the medical advances of recent decades, an overwhelming percentage of people between 65 and 70 are able to work.
The deeper issue is not "able" but "willing," given the option of kicking back instead. John Piper's pamphlet Rethinking Retirement (Crossway, 2009) notes that many Americans believe "we must reward ourselves now in this life for the long years of our labor." Retirement—playing, traveling, sleeping late—is "the world's substitute for heaven since the world does not believe there will be heaven beyond the grave."
Retirement beckons to many just as pretty fruit enticed Eve. Many people bite in and then find many of their days to be empty. Christians should understand that, as Piper writes, "most of the suggestions this world offers us for our retirement years are bad ideas. They call us to live in a way that would make this world look like our treasure. And when that happens, Jesus is belittled." But many Christians fall into worldly thinking.
If Roosevelt administration planners had operated within a Christian worldview, they would have helped religious and civic organizations to carry on their work in helping the poor and the elderly, instead of creating an impersonal governmental system. They would have offered supplementary income to the elderly poor that would have encouraged them to stay with their extended families. How much have we lost in intergenerational community by creating elderly ghettos?
Social Security's fiscal problems are growing not only because the age of access is too low, but because the baby boom bulge will leave millions of retirees supported by too few earners. If more Americans had a Christian worldview, more of us would work as long as we remain able. The elderly would inspire the young by example—I know one physically fit widow who insisted on mowing her own lawn well into her 80s—and contribute financially as well.
Piper says it well: "Finishing life to the glory of Christ means resolutely resisting the typical American dream of retirement . . . We are set free from the cravings that create so much emptiness and uselessness in retirement. Knowing that we have an infinitely satisfying and everlasting inheritance in God just over the horizon of life makes us zealous in our few remaining years here to spend ourselves in the sacrifices of love, not the accumulation of comforts."
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