While some of the press stories might make one think that Bernie Madoff ran Social Security, the reality is quite different.
Although Social Security does bear a resemblance to a Ponzi scheme in that it has promised much more in benefits to younger Americans than it can possibly pay, these shortcomings can be fairly easily fixed if political leaders are willing to face up to the challenge. Ponzi schemes cannot be fixed, since they are criminal enterprises designed to fleece participants.
However, rhetorical flourishes aside, the recent Social Security debate among Republican presidential candidates is a valuable reminder that the program faces serious problems and needs to be fixed. Since 2010, Social Security has been spending more in benefits than it receives from its payroll taxes and other revenue sources. The non-partisan Social Security Administration actuaries say that these deficits will never end. And in less than 25 years, there will be a 25 percent across-the-board benefit cut unless the program is fixed.
Americans know these facts. A new CNN poll shows that fully 55 percent of Americans recognize that “Social Security’s problems are serious and can be fixed only with major changes to the current system.” However, these poll numbers have been the same since at least 1998, showing that unless there is real political leadership, nothing will happen.
We know what to do. Social Security can be fixed by increasing the retirement age to reflect increases in longevity that have already taken place, changing the benefit formula, and a few other simple things. A combination would enable younger Americans to enjoy the same type of retirement security that their parents and grandparents received. A more complete reform is included in The Heritage Foundation’s “Saving the American Dream” plan, which would guarantee that no American would ever retire into poverty.
The important thing about this year’s Social Security debate is not whether it is a Ponzi scheme or not. The important thing is that after three years of mushy presidential rhetoric, potential political leaders are talking openly about Social Security’s problems and what is required to fix them. But that is only the first step. Talk must lead to action.