Social Security is too critical a matter — and one affecting far too many people — to allow it to be skimmed over, breezed by or paid only lip service. Our 2016 presidential candidates need to take a stand on how they would update Social Security to keep it financially strong and adequate for future generations.
For too long politicians have made gratuitous comments on the issue, saying, “I believe in Social Security and I’m going to protect it.” Now it is time they tell us what that means. We need to see their plans.
Make no mistake, the challenge itself — keeping Social Security strong for the future — gets a fair amount of attention from presidential candidates. It’s the details of what they’d do to address it that typically get abbreviated. As a result, voters are afforded little information on what represents a critical test of leadership mettle: what a candidate would do, if elected president, to keep Social Security strong for the future.
Most people know there’s a growing problem and some younger folks even think Social Security will disappear by the time they are of retirement age. While that is simply not true, there’s no question the challenge to maintain current benefits is significant. The reality is that many people are living longer. Today, a 65-year-old will live another 20 years, on average. As a result, some people are receiving benefits for longer periods of time. But studies show life expectancy has grown more slowly for some groups — and for some groups, life expectancy may actually be declining.
In 1960, women on average had more than three children. Today, they have fewer than two. That means fewer people entering the workforce and paying into Social Security. More couples are divorcing, marriages are getting shorter and more women never marry. This means fewer women are eligible for Social Security spousal benefits. More women are working outside the home. As a result, more women are paying into Social Security and qualifying for their own retirement benefits.
The bottom line: If we stay on our current path (i.e., do nothing), in less than 20 years, Social Security recipients will lose 25 percent of their benefits. For many, that will mean a cut of up to $10,000 per year. With a significant proportion of recipients having no source of income other than Social Security, the effects would be profound.
Social Security has played a cornerstone role in American life for more than 80 years and it touches, in some way, nearly every individual and family. Nearly every worker pays into Social Security and about 60 million Americans currently receive Social Security benefits. These benefits keep 22 million people out of poverty and serve as the foundation of a secure retirement for millions more.
Forget 6 degrees of separation — most of us are not separated from Social Security by even 1 degree.
If someone is not a Social Security recipient themselves, they very likely have a parent or relative who is, or an older sibling or neighbor — and about 5 million children (whose parents paid into Social Security and died) are also supported by Social Security benefits. Meanwhile, the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that retirement-age Americans are the fastest growing segment of our population. Optimism is an admirable trait, but this is not a challenge that will dissipate over time — just the opposite, in fact.
Fortunately, the 2016 presidential campaign playing out over roughly the next year gives voters — whatever their political beliefs, age or personal circumstances — an opportunity to press presidential candidates, and the campaign apparatus that surrounds and informs them, for specifics on what they would do to update Social Security to keep it financially strong and adequate for future generations. What’s their plan? How would it work? What would it achieve? What approaches do they support? Which do they oppose? Why?
Voters need to know where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on keeping Social Security financially strong and adequate for future generations. Our presidential candidates need to take a stand.
Jo Ann Jenkins is CEO of AARP.