The return on Social Security is truly terrible because of the way it is structured. It is in fact set up exactly like a Ponzi scheme (but without the great returns for the initial investors). As time passes and the government is running out of the ability to even borrow money, it is looking more and more like the system will need to cut payouts and those who are under 55 will not even get the paltry returns it currently provides.
Unfortunately, all of the “fixes” suggested by our representatives just keep the same, bad system going by increasing taxes but still provide the same, poverty-level income each month to retirees. We already raised Social Security taxes in the 1980’s to get ready for the retirement of the baby Boomers today. All that happened was the government spent all of the extra tax money. We still have no lock-box full of money ready to support today’s seniors.
The other plan to fix Social Security is to make the retirement age higher for people entering the workforce today. That means they will be working longer and paying in more, but receive less than today’s retirees since they’ll collect fewer payments. Plus, how exactly will cutting benefits for someone retiring in 40 years help pay for a deficit today?! Can someone explain the logic here?
Given my criticism, a fair question would be, “So what is your plan?” Well, here it is.
To develop a good plan, the first step is to look at the issues with the current system. These are:
1. The return on Social Security currently is absolutely terrible. Even though individuals put away enough to fully fund their retirement under the system, the amount they get back would not even pay for basic expenses, let alone medications and enjoying life. This is largely because the trustees spend the money as it comes in instead of investing and letting it grow.
2. There are individuals who are currently depending on social security, at least to some extent.
3. Those 55 and older are expecting Social Security and feel entitled to it since they have paid in for all of these years. Never mind that they could have done the math and seen that the system was going insolvent. And never mind that they have “enjoyed” the results of that spending (it was spent by the government for various things, appropriate and not). And never mind that they could have demanded that the system be changed to a private system (remember the push by George W. Bush for privatization and the cheers by the Democrats when it didn’t pass?) Their mindset is that they paid in and therefore they should get what was promised (although there never really is a promise since it can be changed at any time).
4. We need something since people do not tend to save for retirement and will become a burden on society or die in the streets without some mandatory savings requirement.
So, here is my plan:
1. For those 65 and older, there would be no changes. Yes, this is spending money we don’t have, but this is technically already debt-on-the-books (in a business, this would be listed as an obligation).
2. The retirement age for everyone not 65 or older would immediately be set at 70 years old. Most politicians would only raise the age for younger workers, but we are broke now, there is a large number of older workers who will overwhelm the system, and people are living into their eighties routinely. We just can’t afford to start paying at 65 for everyone currently in this age group. Plus, many of these people have not saved enough to retire and therefore will probably go on working anyway. Fair, no, but here again, they had 40+ years to change things. And is it fair to have younger workers work longer and pay extra while this group gets a pass?
3. For those 60-65, private accounts would be established and every dollar currently going into Social Security would be put into bank CDs. This group does not have enough years to invest in stocks, but at least they could stash away the money they already contribute. These funds would be used first when they reach 70, paid out at the current rate for Social Security with the government taking over once those funds are depleted. This would provide 5-10 years of funding. Note that this would reduce collections, which would drive up the debt, but here again, that money is really an obligation currently – it is just off-the-books. By putting the money in private accounts, this would ensure the money is there when needed and not spent on food and drinks on a Congressional flight or something.
4. For those 16-60, a portion of their money would be diverted into private accounts invested in mutual funds. These funds would be locked away and invested in a wide range of stocks and bonds, appropriate by age. A portion of the funds each year would be sent into the current system to pay current retirees, with younger workers paying in a greater percentage. Note that this would allow for some of the obligations to paid from growth rather than just payroll taxes. This portion would decrease with age, and would be phased out for everyone as time passes and the number of those collecting traditional benefits decreases. None of the people in this group would ever receive traditional benefits, but I doubt they would mind since they would do far better investing in private accounts(see my analysis in this post). Those who are 40 or under today in this group could start drawing on the money once they reach 65 (there would be plenty), while the retirement age for older individuals would be phased from 70 to 65 as appropriate to ensure adequate income for their entire retirement. Funds left in their account on their deaths would go to their heirs.
We need to accept that a time of change is needed. That change will not be pleasant, but should be as fair as possible. Once we shift to private accounts, invested in a wide range of stocks and bonds which gradually shift to income investments and cash as one nears retirement age, we will actually have a system that will let individuals retire with dignity, even if they have not saved otherwise.
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