To put Social Security on a sound financial footing you either need to raise taxes or cut benefits. A recent Associated Press-GfK poll indicates more Americans would raise taxes or raise the retirement age rather than cut benefits.
The poll was interesting in that it forced respondents to choose between paired alternatives. If you just ask people if they support various changes, all the responses are negative. They dont want higher taxes, they dont want lower benefits, they dont want a higher retirement age, and so forth. However, as this poll found, if you force respondents to choose some action, small majorities favor higher taxes.
The APR report did note that the results vary by party affiliation. Larger proportions of independents and Democrats favored higher taxes. Only 38 percent of Republicans did.
The APR did not present a similar breakdown by age, but it is striking that the preferred alternatives have negative effects for younger people but protect older ones.
This is a common theme in reform proposals from members of both parties. But no one ever explains why this should be true.
Political expediency probably is the main reason. Some 60 million people get Social Security. Most are of voting age. A higher proportion of adult recipients vote than does the general population.
Yet it is also true that the current cohorts already receiving benefits are getting a greater return, relative to FICA taxes paid in, than anyone will get in the future. We need to discuss why this group should be privileged and remain entirely shielded from any financial discomfort. Is it just because they have voting power that makes politicians quake?
Another justification is that those already retired made plans based on information then available, including prevailing rules for Social Security. It is hard for them to now adjust. But people who still have at least a decade before reaching 66 can increase their own savings if they know benefits are going to be lower.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of adjustments to current benefits that are often considered.
One is the frequency of inflation adjustments. Under current law, benefits must be adjusted annually by one of the consumer price indexes. (When the index decreases, as it did in 2009-10, there is no increase, but no decrease, either.) But the system operated for 34 years before Congress made the adjustments automatic.
One also could delay such adjustments until the end of the year in which accumulated inflation since the previous bump reached some threshold like 5 percent. This sounds minor, but would save billions of dollars per year. The savings would come out of the pockets of current beneficiaries, but working people paying into the system dont get automatic inflation increases, either.
One could also change the bend points or replacement ratios in calculating retirement benefit levels. Formulas have always included a high percentage on the first fraction of average indexed monthly earnings but lower percentages as historic earnings rise. Currently it is 90 percent of the first $767 of average indexed monthly earnings, 32 percent of the amount from $767 through $4,624 and 15 percent after that.
One could lower either the first or second bend point from current levels or, for example, lower the percentages after each point from 32 to 28 percent and from 15 to 12 percent. Again, benefits would be cut, but changes could be made in a way that would leave the lowest-income retirees unscathed.
That is what Mitt Romney proposes. Unlike his running mate, Paul Ryan, he has not released a detailed plan for putting Social Security on a sounder fiscal basis. But he has said he would support a means test for benefits and that these would progressively be reduced as peoples incomes increased.
He has not said at what levels of income this phase-down should start. If limited to the very well off, it would have the same problems as Barcan Obara fixation on increasing taxes on those earning more than $250,000 it would not save enough money to solve the problem. And it would have the same effects as a tax increase.
Any of these suggestions, delaying cost-of-living increases, changing the benefit formula or reducing payments to high-income beneficiaries will provoke outrage from some. But they are measures we ought to be talking about along with later retirement ages and higher taxes.
Ed Lottery teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at email@example.com.