Day of Reckoning

Posted: Jul 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Honesty is often the first casualty of a political campaign, as the candidates take shots that they hope will dent the popularity of their rivals. But in this election year, it?s high time for a little honesty about Social Security. Frankly, we don?t have time to waste.

The revered entitlement program seems fine, but it needs fixing. Starting in 2018, Social Security will start paying out more than it takes in through taxes.

That?s because there will be far more retirees and not enough workers to support them. When Social Security was launched during the Great Depression, we had 32 workers paying into the system for every one retiree. It was easy to afford a ?pay as you go? system.

Today we have only three workers for every retiree. No wonder Social Security taxes have soared. And there?s nowhere for them to go but up. Over the coming decades, the ratio will eventually drop to just two workers for every retiree.

Politicians like to point to the Social Security ?trust fund? and claim that we have enough assets to pay out benefits for decades to come. But that?s simply not true. In fact, there are no real assets in the trust fund.

Think of it this way: Most people have some sort of retirement account, usually a 401(k) or IRA account. Those contain real money. Our employers sets money aside from our pay, or we deposit money from our checking accounts. When we retire, there are actual assets waiting to be drawn down.

Social Security is different. Every day, employers and employees send their taxes -- real money -- to Washington. Some of that money is supposed to be set aside for future Social Security benefits. But that?s not what happens.

Instead, the government spends the money on whatever it pleases. It?s used to pay military salaries and build roads -- and to fund absurd pork-barrel programs, such as $725,000 for Philadelphia?s ?Please Touch? museum.

In return, the Treasury gives the Social Security Administration IOUs. Eventually, though, those IOUs will have to be made good with real money. When that happens, we?ll have one of four choices:

  • Raise taxes to cover the shortfall.
  • Borrow the difference.
  • Trim federal spending by several trillion dollars.
  • Cut benefits.

OK, show of hands: Who wants to be president when the bills come due? Try selecting one or more of those options and then facing voters in 2020.

Fortunately, this can be avoided if we act quickly. The key to saving Social Security is to create personal retirement accounts. With these accounts, individuals would channel a portion of their Social Security taxes into investment funds they would control. It?s sort of like creating an IRA for everyone who wants one.

The rate of return wouldn?t be guaranteed, but it would almost certainly be better than what Social Security will offer. For proof, check out The Heritage Foundation?s handy on-line calculator (at and determine the rate of return you can expect from Social Security. As an example, Betsy, my one-year-old granddaughter, will get back a paltry 1 percent.

Maybe I?ll start giving her old-fashioned U.S. Savings Bonds. Her return on those will actually be five times greater than what she?ll get from Social Security. At least then she?ll have some hope of retiring some day.

With personal accounts, we can guarantee benefits to everyone who?s now on Social Security and make the program a good investment for today?s workers, too. But the time to act is now. If we avoid this issue, we?ll live to regret it.