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One of the biggest economic challenges facing America is a simple numbers game: as the baby boomer generation ages, our workforce gets smaller and our economy shrinks as a consequence.

The baby boomers were the largest generation in the history of our country, and as they’ve gone through their economic life cycle, we’ve all felt the changes in the economy. Now comes the biggest change: the retirement boom. Rather than earning and saving, baby boomers are now retiring in a growing wave, drawing down on their IRAs and 401(k)s rather than building them up.

Obviously, we’ve known this day was coming; gigantic demographic trends don’t just sneak up on us. Unfortunately, though, decades of fiscal irresponsibility in Washington, D.C, have left us financially unprepared to keep our promises to this surging population of retirees out of the savings of the past. The Social Security Trust Fund holds IOU’s — not cold hard cash — and in just a few short years, we’ll have gone through all the IOUs too.

I think it’s time to give healthy older Americans a strong incentive to stay in the workforce longer if they want to and are able. I propose ending Social Security taxes on workers’ paychecks at age 62, and ending all federal income taxes on workers’ paychecks, up to the (currently $128,400), at age 65. And to encourage employers to keep and hire older workers, they would also be exempt from paying Social Security taxes for workers over the age of 62. If elected to Congress in Michigan’s 11th district, this is the first legislation I will introduce, and I will make its passage my most important priority.

Others have a different vision. Politician Lena Epstein, in contrast, proposes a mandatory increase in the retirement age to 70 — with full taxes every step of the way. But I think the Epstein plan is the wrong way to go; not everyone can go on working that long, and it’s wrong to slash their Social Security benefits to zero if they can’t keep working a full-time job until age 70. I strongly prefer offering the carrot of a tax incentive, rather than the stick of Epstein’s mandatory retirement age increase. We don’t need to bully people into working longer. We just need to make it worth their while. That’s the kind of conservative change we could all support.

We should take other steps to draw more Americans into the workforce. One of the most successful social policy experiments in a generation was the bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s. Liberals predicted that the work requirements called for in that landmark reform would result in frozen bodies in the streets. What happened instead was literally millions of Americans moving from the welfare rolls to productive jobs and careers. Unfortunately, many of these work requirements were removed during the Obama years, so it turns to us now to reform welfare once again. That’s something I’ve focused on as a state representative, and it’s work I’ll continue in Congress.

But what must not change is our solemn commitment to providing every American with a dignified retirement. Reckless spending by politicians in both parties has put Social Security in jeopardy, and change will be required to make the numbers add up. But that change can’t involve a one-size-fits-all command to every American that they simply have to work longer. That’s not fair, and it fundamentally violates the promise of the Social Security system.

The better way is to reward Americans who work longer by letting them keep more of their own money in their own pocket. I know that might be a radical idea for Washington, but it’s nothing but common sense here at home.

Rep. Klint Kesto, a Republican, represents Michigan’s 39th House district.

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