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Social Security: Finding Fixes for the Flood

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A torrent often begins with a trickle -- and so it is with entitlement spending. The flood of retirees that could overwhelm Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has started slowly, but it’s underway.

Last October Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, a 61-year-old teacher born in 1946 (supposedly the first baby-boomer born), became the first baby-boomer to file for Social Security benefits.

Her filing generated media attention. She completed the process at the National Press Club, then told reporters she looked forward to her benefits. “I’m thrilled to think that after all these years that I’m getting paid back the money that I put in,” she said.

Plenty of people have retired since Casey-Kirschling’s 15 minutes in the spotlight. And plenty more will retire today, next week and next year. Some 10,000 Americans each day will become eligible for Social Security benefits over the next 20 years. The only question is: How our government will pay for this?

Let’s start with what we can’t afford to d raise taxes or run up debt to cover the shortfall.

Recently Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican budget-hawk from Wisconsin, asked the Congressional Budget Office to determine how much Washington would need to increase marginal tax rates to pay for entitlement spending over the coming decades. The answer was sobering.

The CBO says marginal tax rates for every bracket -- along with corporate tax rates -- would have to more than double. Doing so, the CBO determined, “would significantly reduce economic activity and create serious problems with tax avoidance and tax evasion.” Simply put, the CBO warned, such rates “would probably not be economically feasible.”

If our government tries to borrow money to pay for entitlements, the CBO says, we’ll run up unsustainable debt by 2050. In short, we’d destroy our nation’s economy. Income would stop growing and, by the late 2040s, actually start to contract.

We can’t let that happen. To preserve Social Security and our economy, we need a three-pronged approach.

First, it’s time to start raising the retirement age.

Social Security started in 1935, and at that time slightly more than half of workers lived to reach the retirement age of 65. These days, though, life spans are much longer. Our government needs to encourage people to work longer or, at least, not tap their benefits at age 62. The best way to increase the retirement age would be to increase it over time (say two months per year until it reaches, say 68) and then index it for longevity after that.

Next, lawmakers should ensure that Social Security and other entitlements only go to those who need help. Bill Gates, for example, recently stepped down from Microsoft. In 10 years, this multi-billionaire can start collecting Social Security and Medicare. That’s absurd. Reducing payments to wealthy seniors would leave more available for lower income retirees.

Finally, our government needs to shore up Social Security with personal retirement accounts.

The concept is simple, and would work similarly to an IRA or 401(k). All workers would be able to invest a small percentage of their Social Security taxes in an account that they would own. The money would go into a few simple, low-cost investments that would grow over time, just as other retirement plans do. These accounts would not replace employer-sponsored retirement plans, but increase the ability of Social Security to pay benefits to them.

In 1940, Ida May Fuller received the first monthly retirement check sent by the Social Security Administration. The program served her well; she paid in a total of $24.75 and collected $22,888.92 from Social Security over 35 years.

That sort of math simply doesn’t add up anymore. Our country needs fundamental entitlement reform. And quickly -- before the growing tide of retirees overwhelms our budget.

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