Saturday’s editorial urges Congress and the White House to focus soon on fixing Social Security.
Regardless of whether you agreed with the Obama administration’s methods or believed its conclusions, you likely had some appreciation for the White House’s stated intent for making health-care reform a first priority: addressing the nation’s out-of-control long-term deficits.
During the lifetime of any young child today, the greatest single driver of the federal budget deficit is the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid - not stimulus spending, not earmarks, not the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq nor even any given president’s tax cuts. This is partly because of our country’s aging population but moreso because of the expected inflation in the price of health-care for everyone, insured or not, and health-care reform was intended to slow that growth in costs - hence the phrase “bend the cost curve.”
According to economists at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, who calculate our country’s long-term deficit projections, the bill that passed will reduce the deficit by more than $100 million over its first 10 years, and more thereafter. Many Americans certainly disagree with that conclusion, but nearly all would agree that the looming debt spiral must be addressed before our interest payments alone consume all our national tax revenue (currently projected to happen in about 50 years).
For anyone concerned about the program’s future, this week brought a poignant inflection point, when the CBO announced that for the first time ever, Social Security will pay out more in benefits than it will collect in revenue. It’s no need for panic - the shortfall should be temporary, caused by an unexpected number of people retiring early amid the recession, and it can be covered by this year’s interest on the $2.5 trillion Social Security trust fund.
After returning briefly to a surplus, the shortfall will become permanent in about five years, however, and at the present rate of spending will exhaust the trust completely in about 25 years. The fund itself is only money that the government owes itself, and represents the absolute limit before Social Security benefits are reduced automatically.
This is a problem we can fix, and one that we now have time to fix, but it demands a bipartisan solution, as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has been arguing for years. That bipartisan solution - slightly raising the retirement age, slightly lowering benefits for future retirees and the rate at which they increase, slightly increasing the payroll tax and encouraging more retirement savings - is even within the reach of Congress, as the Obama administration demonstrated by meeting with Graham on the issue shortly after inauguration.
“Within reach,” of course, is far different from “easy.” Liberals have traditionally resisted any cut to benefits that would harm seniors’ quality of life, while conservatives have fought any increase in taxes that would place an additional burden on workers. There’s merit to both arguments, which is why the solution will be better with cooperation from both sides. And after the end of a major national debate that has left us all bitter and angry, a bipartisan solution to a significant problem could bring some healing.
Our country’s promise to take care of our elderly and our disabled is part of what makes us great, but now, before it’s too late, we must make sure that promise is realistic.