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Politics

The Mythical Social Security Crisis of 2011

Even without congressional action, the retirement system won’t go broke for decades, so why all the fuss? It’s all about scaring voters.

Despite gloomy predictions from Republican presidential candidates and interest groups, the Social Security system will remain on firm footing for at least the next 25 years — even if nothing is done.

That’s right. The sky is not falling. It’s not, as retiring rockers R.E.M. would put it, “the end of the world as we know it.” You might, of course, think otherwise if you’ve been watching the recent debates among Republicans who want to replace Barack Obama as president. Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls the system a Ponzi scheme. Rep. Ron Paul, another Texas Republican, says the program is “on its last legs.” And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggests that the system faces “looming bankruptcy.”

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But here’s the reality: The Social Security Trust Fund’s surplus will continue to grow for more than a decade, until 2022. After that, the surplus will, indeed, start shrinking as more and more baby boomers retire and start collecting checks rather than paying in. But it will take until 2035 or so before the surplus is gone.

Even then, the fund will be far from broke. According to the government’s own auditors, there will be enough cash to pay 75% of the program’s benefits for another half a century, until 2085.

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So why all the “woe is us” warnings if the end isn’t near? Politics, of course. A flood of younger voters helped sweep Obama past Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. But they might not be so eager to vote the same way next year if they’re convinced by Perry and company that Social Security is falling apart and there’s no chance they’ll get anything back from the system after paying into it throughout their careers. And seniors can be rattled by the mere suggestion that their checks will bounce.

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Every generation goes through this period of doubt. Way back in the early 1980s, shortly after I joined the workforce and pondered who FICA was and what he was doing with all the money he took from my weekly check, Social Security was deemed by some to be dying. It didn’t die, of course. Congress and President Reagan made some changes and the checks kept arriving in the mail.

In 1996 there was another round of dire warnings, leading Mother Jones magazine to proclaim: “By 1999, Social Security as we know it may no longer exist.” Again, Congress and the president — this time Bill Clinton — stepped up and made changes to bolster the program.

And, at some point, that will happen again. Congress and the president — Obama in a second term or a Republican who defeats him, or someone a little further down the road — will make more changes to keep the system healthy. No Congress will allow Social Security to reach the point where benefit checks will be 25% smaller. Because folks collecting Social Security aren’t just check recipients. They’re voters, and enraged voters don’t give incumbent lawmakers much hope for job security.

Put another way, there is zero chance of Congress doing nothing to the Social Security system over the next 50 years. Zero. In fact, since 1937, Congress has mandated more than 60 changes to the program, altering the payroll tax rate 20 times and boosting the maximum wage subjected to the tax more than 40 times.

A combination of those actions, perhaps with a gradual boost of the retirement age, will add years of additional solvency to the program without major cutbacks in benefits.

Those changes won’t come until 2013 or later, after the next presidential election and in an odd-numbered year, when members of Congress aren’t on the ballot.

But come they will, and the great Social Security crisis of 2011 will evaporate, just as similar crises of earlier decades did. You can take that forecast to the bank, along with your monthly check.

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