Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Deficit commission fishing for ways to raise the retirement age

Fishing season is open, so it may be no coincidence that a recent federal deficit-cutting proposal includes this whopper: cut Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age to 68.

Like fish left out too long, this one smells funny. And no wonder: More than 50 million Americans rely on Social Security benefits to maintain their economic security, and raising the retirement age would jeopardize the economic security of millions of American seniors.

But Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit reduction commission, contend raising the retirement age is necessary for fiscal austerity, despite increasing economic insecurity in retirement.

So will raiding Social Security really help pay down the deficit, or is it a red herring?

The easy answer is this: Social Security is a separate account in the federal budget, and is prohibited by law from contributing to the deficit. Ergo, cutting Social Security won’t help lower the deficit. Simple enough, right?

When Congress approves Social Security benefit payments, it isn’t like other federal spending – those payments come directly from Social Security payroll taxes, with any surplus socked away in the Social Security Trust Fund (which is, by the way, currently sporting a $2.5 trillion surplus).

The graph below from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) clearly shows the dire projections about Social Security and the deficit are rhetoric, not reality. Today, Social Security payments amount to about 5% of the economy, and are predicted to rise just 1% by 2030. In fact, Social Security payments aren’t even close to the biggest challenge facing the federal budget. That dubious distinction goes to skyrocketing health care costs, reflected in rising costs of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Still not convinced you’re being told a whale tale? Maybe you’ve heard the argument that people are living longer, so the retirement age has to increase as well. Don’t bite that hook. Those increases in life expectancy aren’t spread equally across all demographics – which means an increase in the retirement age will hit low-income workers and women, who aren’t living any longer at all.

“Most of the increase in life expectancy in retirement has been among high income men,” said Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. A study conducted by the Social Security Administration found that a man in the top half of earnings distribution who retired in 2006 had a life span of about 5.5 years longer than the same man in the bottom half of the earnings distribution. From the Columbia Journalism Review:

So, over the decades, the top earners got five more years of life expectancy, compared with only one year for those at the bottom—reflecting the widening disparities in the country. The Social Security study didn’t look at women, but… research shows that the general pattern appears to holds for women as well.

Here is the real sinker. Social Security is a contract for social insurance between our government and American workers. The terms are simple: work hard and pay into the system, and you and your family will have a small measure of economic security when you retire, or in case of your disability or death. Raising the retirement age violates that contract, and means economic insecurity and poverty for millions of American seniors.

Social Security is a unique program. It’s benefits aren’t discretionary, and the funds aren’t tied to account that changes with the political tides. It is a critical economic backstop for those nearing retirement. And with pensions a thing of the past and 401(k)s evaporating in a tumultuous stock market, the promise of Social Security is the only certainty for millions of retiring Americans.

Cutting Social Security benefits to pay down the deficit will surely cause more economic insecurity for million of current and future retirees. Policymakers would be wise to take a look at the polls – and the data – before they consider any cuts to Social Security in the name of deficit reduction.

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