Editorial: Social Security should be top campaign issue

The Detroit News

Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Chris Christie may not realize their presidential ambitions, and may never even get their respective party’s nomination. But they are performing an important service in the 2016 campaign by keeping the issue of Social Security reform alive.

Few of the other candidates want to discuss the financial health of Social Security, or address the difficult choices America must make to keep the system working for the long-term.

But the Vermont senator and New Jersey governor are not shying away from the no-win subject. They’re talking about it, and hopefully will force their fellow candidates to do the same.

Their plans for fixing the system are starkly different, and still lack significant detail. But they offer an important starting point.

Both men target the well-off to varying degrees for a solution.

Sanders would go after the upper middle class in restarting the 6 percent Social Security tax, which currently kicks out at 118,500 of earnings, on all income above $250,000.

Christie would not raise more money through higher taxes, but he would deny Social Security benefits to millionaires.

And he would raise the retirement age to 69 from 67 in steps over the next 25 years.

That idea has merit. When Social Security was created in 1935, the average life expectancy for Americans was just under 62 years, meaning large numbers of people did not live long enough to collect benefits.

Today, life expectancy is nearly 78 years; someone who retires at 67 can expect 11 years of benefits, and in most situations will collect more than they paid into the system.

Acknowledging the new actuarial reality is an essential reform that could keep the system solvent well beyond its current 2034 crisis date.

Limiting benefits and collecting more from the wealthy could do the same, although the proposals are fraught with fairness issues. Social Security was set up as a somewhat of a federal retirement savings plan, not as a welfare program. Denying benefits to those who have paid in, or demanding from them unlimited contributions for a limited return smacks of the ultimate wealth transfer scheme.

Left unaddressed by Sanders and Christie — and all other candidates — is the more urgent crisis facing the Social Security Disability program.

That fund will be depleted by the end of 2016, barring Congressional action. If the retirement program is tapped to supplement benefits for the disabled, it will accelerate the entire system’s insolvency date.

Nearly 11 million Americans are collecting disability benefits today, up from just 7 million in 2002. Enrollment accelerated after the 2008 recession, as many workers turned to Social Security when they couldn’t find employment.

The rules for determining eligibility must be tightened. Social Security Disability checks should not be a substitute or an extension of unemployment benefits. The system is collapsing under its own weight.

No Labels, a bipartisan group of current and former politicians and government officials, is pushing for Social Security reform to be one of the major issues of this presidential campaign.

Christie and Sanders have got things off to a good start. While their ideas may not be the right solutions, they should prompt other candidates to join this vital conversation.