There was a time when Social Security was a net asset to the government, which is why the federal government routinely raided the funds raised by the Social Security payroll tax to spend on other programs. But that is no longer true. As the Social Security Trustees' 2011 report documents, Social Security added $49 billion to last year's budget deficit and is projected to add $46 billion to this year's deficit. And $2.6 trillion of our $14 trillion national debt is owed to the Social Security trust fund or rather "trust fund."
This reality was dramatized during the debate over raising the debt ceiling, when President Obama attempted to scare seniors by warning that Social Security checks might not go out on time if recalcitrant Republicans continued to refuse to raise taxes. He thus exposed the naked truth -- the trust fund is bare and that the checks to current and future beneficiaries depend upon taxes and borrowing.
The Romney Republicans want candidates to tiptoe around the question of entitlements, as if the truth will be too harsh for fragile voters to hear. But the voters are not so sensitive, nor so uninformed.
A Gallup poll taken in May found that 67 percent of Americans believe that Social Security and Medicare are already creating or will within 10 years create "a crisis for the federal government." That included 54 percent of Democrats. Another 19 percent expect the crisis within 10 to 20 years. Only 4 percent said the programs would not create a problem for more than 20 years, and 7 percent said "not in the foreseeable future.
To face the facts about Social Security is not to throw granny over the cliff, as the Democrats would have it. There are reforms (such as the program adopted by Chile, as Herman Cain mentioned and as I wrote about recently) that would offer a better return for retirees and a better deal for younger workers. Republicans can also fairly propose gradual increases in the retirement age.
Americans are going to either solve this problem by facing up to it, or they won't. But Republicans cannot hope to sneak the issue past the voters during election season with dishonest palaver and then impose a solution -- or worse, join the Democrats in denial. On this issue, Rick Perry is treating voters as adults.
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