HEATH: Young people get short end of Social Security

Redistribution now leaves nothing for later

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The year 2013 has not brought a happy New Year for the salaries of workers across the United States. The two-year Social Security payroll tax reduction, which brought the employees’ share of the tax down to 4.2 percent from 6.2 percent, is over. Young workers — who have particularly struggled in this economy — will be hit hardest as they are forced to pay more toward the promise of far-off retirement instead of making ends meet today.

Yet it’s not the loss of the temporary payroll-tax reduction that should anger young Americans — it’s the entire Social Security system. That’s because for young workers, money paid into Social Security is money they will never see again. Young Americans of all political persuasions should unite and demand Social Security reform.

Social Security was sold as a government-managed pension program, but that’s not what it actually is. In reality, it is a generational redistribution system: Revenues raised by the payroll tax are shipped directly back out to today’s seniors and the disabled.

Even worse, since 2010 the program has been running deficits in order to meet its liabilities. This means that billions of dollars — a projected average of $66 billion per year from 2012 to 2018, and rising sharply thereafter — will be taken from the general revenues in order to meet obligations. In addition to payroll taxes, Social Security will increasingly demand more of our income tax dollars as well.

Just how bad is it? The unfunded liability of Social Security for the next 75 years is $8.6 trillion. In order to keep its promises as they are written today, Social Security owes $8.6 trillion more in future checks than it will receive in revenues.

What about that Social Security “Trust Fund” you’ve heard politicians talk so much about? It is a meaningless accounting gimmick. When Social Security goes to cash in the bonds in the trust fund, the Treasury has to come up with every last dollar through other taxes or new debt.

The trust fund is expected to be officially depleted in 2037. That’s when today’s 25-year-old workers — born in 1987 — will be 50 years old. At that point, according to the Congressional Budget Office, beneficiaries will see a reduction in their benefits of about 25 percent. This means that a bad deal for today’s young workers will become even worse.

Millennials shouldn’t accept this dismal situation. Important steps can be taken today to scale back the government’s disastrous foray into retirement planning, and young people should not allow politicians to skirt real reforms.

Steps should be taken to reduce benefits that are promised today to bring the system into better balance. This can be done in a progressive manner so wealthy seniors see their monthly paychecks grow slower than under current law. Cost savings can also be realized by more accurately accounting for the cost of inflation.

Next, policymakers should give young workers a chance to truly save for their retirement by allowing them to use a portion of their payroll taxes to fund individual accounts that will be their property throughout their lives. That way, like a real retirement account, workers can keep track of their contributions and understand what they should expect to have at retirement.

Giving young Americans ownership of their retirement dollars would protect them from getting stuck with the raw end of the deal. Moreover, this would provide better protections for people who die before retirement and more fairly reward spouses who are secondary earners.

Of course, planning for the future is important, and prudent young workers will set aside money now to prepare for all that life will bring. Yet the Social Security program should not make their burden heavier by imposing higher taxes and shifting their resources to older generations. Millennials should support serious reform proposals now, before it’s too late.

Hadley Heath is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum (www.iwf.org).

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