Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How to fix Social Security (and Medicare)

It's not rocket science, though Congress is (still) stumped

How to fix Social Security (and Medicare)


As I wrote back on July 18, 2010:

Options for keeping Social Security viable

By Joseph N. DiStefano

Down in Congress, House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio agree Americans ought to get used to working until they are 70 or so before collecting Social Security.

In forcing future retirees to wait longer before collecting their average $14,000-a-year Social Security payments, our elected leaders are quoting with approval the proposals set forth by billionaire investor Peter G. Peterson, who notes with alarm that the increase in retired Americans has the government paying out more than it puts in for retirement benefits.

Peterson's front man, former federal government auditing boss David Walker, last month solicited backing for more limited Social Security eligibility in visits to the Philadelphia area, as I reported June 17.

I'm all for keeping Grandma and Grandpa busy and self-supporting. But at a time when so many jobless people in their 50s are having a tough time finding work that pays more than a fraction of their former salaries, can we really afford to dump millions of older folks back into the workforce?

Not everyone who has studied the problem in depth thinks that's the way to go.

Last year, the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan group of professionals who project the costs of benefit programs for a living, used Social Security data to describe a string of choices that would reduce the program's future deficits, and in some cases even boost benefits.

The report, "Fixing Social Security: Adequate Benefits, Adequate Financing," lays out the problem: If nothing is done, Social Security will start spending more than it brings in by the 2020s. By the 2030s, the program would run out of reserves, leaving enough income from ongoing worker and employer deductions to pay only three-quarters of the promised benefits.

We could fix that, the academy says, by boosting today's payroll deduction from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent, for both workers and employers (hitting the self-employed double). The academy says this would make Social Security solvent until everyone currently working is dead, or longer.

Or we could increase the limit on what high-wage workers pay Social Security, which isn't taxed on income over $106,800 this year. This would wipe out the difference between what the program takes in and what it pays, and could leave enough left over to boost retirement checks a bit for the rich who pay more.

Or we could get rid of most of the deficit by letting the payroll tax increase gradually, by a nickel for every $100 of payroll, each year, for 20 years. The academy picked up that proposal, and the math that backs it, from retired Oregon construction engineer Dale Coberly. He notes that wages are expected to rise anyway in that period, so the gradually higher rate won't mean smaller paychecks.

Or we could do a couple of these things together, turning the deficit into a surplus and enabling Social Security to: pay more to the oldest retirees with the smallest checks; or boost the basic benefit; or resume paying checks to orphans while they are in college, as the program stopped doing during its last round of cost cuts.

Those are viable options. The Peterson Foundation's Walker, by predicting dire consequences if we don't limit Social Security eligibility, "is a scaremonger, and you need to stop and think before he scares you, and the country, into hurting itself," Coberly told me after Walker's visit to Philadelphia.

Even Medicare, whose numbers look grimmer, could be funded by affordable payroll increases, if we understand what we're buying and we're willing to pay, Coberly says.

"The key, of course, is paying it," he told me. "If we tell ourselves we can't afford to pay for what we need - medical insurance and old-age insurance - but that the government will provide them anyway, yes, that would cause a budget deficit.

"But there is no reason we cannot pay for them. "

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or



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About this blog

PhillyDeals posts interviews, drafts and updates that Joseph N. DiStefano writes alongside his Sunday and Monday columns and ongoing articles about Philadelphia-area business.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn. He taught writing and research at St. Joe’s. He has written for the Inquirer since 1989, except when he left a few times to work at Bloomberg and elsewhere. He wrote the book Comcasted, and raised six kids with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at, 215.854.5194, @PhillyJoeD. Read his blog posts at and his Inquirer columns at Bloomberg posts his items at NH BLG_PHILLYDEAL.

Reach Joseph at or 215 854 5194.

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