Opinion: Deafening silence over Social Security
Pinkham Notch, N.H. — The people here are as old as the hills, almost.
More than 210,000 people here in the state that holds the first presidential primary are retired workers drawing Social Security. Washington sends $290 million a year here in old-age benefits. Overall the median age here is 43 years old, making it the eighth oldest state — and by far the oldest of the states holding early political tests.
Two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are receiving Social Security checks. So is the chief executive they are trying to unseat, along with 54 million of the people the two dozen presidential candidates seek to govern.
So with all that, why the deafening silence on perhaps the most important economic question the country faces: the fact that in the very year Americans choose their president their government will for the first time pay out more in Social Security than the country’s workers pour into the system?
Not once since Social Security began has the system had an annual net deficit.
A 2017 General Accounting Office report shows that the median retirement savings for Americans between age 55 and 64 was $107,000, which translates into a monthly payment of only $310 if invested in an annuity that grows with inflation. Add in an average of $1,413/month from Social Security and that comes to an average of $20,676 a year.
For comparison, the poverty Ievel for a family of four of $25,750 isn’t that much higher.
More than a third of today’s retirees indicate that their financial status has declined, according to a study conducted by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
A third of current retirees worry about outliving their savings, and half of them worry that the crisis in the Social Security Trust Fund will force Washington to reduce their benefits. And fewer than half believe they’ve built a big enough nest egg.
Now that baby boomers are retiring — about 10,000 of them reach age 65 every day — they are doing more than contributing to an aging population. They are ceasing to plow money into the Social Security and Medicare systems.
You would think one of the candidates might have mentioned this at least once in this summer’s debates.
This issue is perfect for the two millennials running for president, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, born in 1981, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., born in 1982. (Those starting to save for retirement at the age of these two need to sock away about a quarter of their income, according to Fidelity Investments. That’s a heavy load.)
It also is an opportunity for the seven boomers running for president — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California — to show some generational responsibility.
That goes, too, for the boomer-in-chief, President Donald Trump, born in the first year of the baby boom.
Some 150 Democratic lawmakers — including Sanders and Warren, who are co-chairs, along with Harris, Klobuchar, Gabbard, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and, when he was in the House, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas — created what they call the Expand Social Security Caucus. Its purpose: mainly to counter Trump’s assertions that his political rivals were determined to "destroy" Social Security. Their effort is mere posturing and has had no impact.
The entitlement crisis is a formidable hike into hostile hills. Democrats are the traditional defenders of Social Security and Medicare and don’t dare cut benefits. Republicans, who in 1982 lost 27 seats in the House largely over fears about Social Security cuts, discovered the dangers of the issue in the Reagan years and have not forgotten the perils inherent in addressing this crisis.
But every hike has its rewards. This one — whether by benefit cuts, means-testing, tax hikes or removing the $128,400 cap on earnings subject to the Social Security payroll taxes — would be formidable. Americans looking beyond their own self interest need to take this hike.
David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.