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The White House Conference
on Social Security

Without Social Security, the poverty rate among older adults
would increase from 9 percent to 50 percent

by Steve Gorin
Washington, D.C.

On December 8, I had the good fortune of participating in the first White House Conference on Social Security. The purpose of this conference was to address proposals for insuring Social Security’s viability into the 21st century. Although the Conference made no recommendations, it provided a forum for all sides to present their views.

Social Security is the keystone of our modern social welfare system. In 1996, almost everyone aged 65 or over received Social Security benefits. For two thirds of “beneficiary units” (couples or unmarried persons), Social Security was a major (50 percent or more) source of income, and for 18 percent, it was the sole source (Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security, 1998). Without Social Security, the poverty rate among older adults would increase from 9 percent to 50 percent.

Some have argued that Social Security discriminates against African American males, who are less likely to live to retirement age than white males. This issue is complicated, however. Because Social Security payments are progressive, lower-income earners receive higher rates of return than higher-income workers do. Since African American workers generally earn less than white workers, African-Americans who live to retirement age generally receive higher rates of return. African-Americans are also more likely to qualify for survivor and disability benefits. In any event, the answer is not to dismantle Social Security but to address the reasons why African Americans fail to live as long as whites.

Currently, the Social Security Trust Fund takes in approximately $100 billion more than it spends. This surplus is invested in Treasury bonds. Beginning in 2013, Social Security could start spending more than it takes in from taxes, and by 2032, the Trust Fund could run out. This would not mean that Social Security would be bankrupt; but that its income would meet only 72 percent of the program’s benefit obligations. According to the Economic Policy Institute, two thirds of this predicted gap is due to people living longer and one third to a projected slowdown in economic growth.

Several groups and individuals have developed proposals to reform Social Security. The most controversial among these involve privatizing Social Security through the introduction of individual investment accounts. Supporters of this approach argue that it would give individuals greater control over their future and enable them to benefit from higher returns in the stock market. Without individual investment accounts, they argue, recipients will face greatly reduced benefits or exorbitant tax increases.

Individual investment accounts are opposed by labor and advocacy groups, including the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Opponents of individual retirement accounts argue that these accounts are far from a panacea. Opponents note that if the economy slows, as most projections assume, returns from the stock market will also slow. Under these circumstances, “returns from a privatized system” would be “even lower than the 2 to 3.5 percent return … most workers get from the Social Security system” (Jeff Faux, Making Social Security Work, Economic Policy Institute, 1998). If the economy does not slow, Social Security will have no difficulty meeting its obligations

An alternative to individual investment accounts has been suggested by Jeff Faux, President of the Economic Policy Institute. According to him, the Social Security shortfall could be met by changing the way the government measures prices, increasing the limit on taxable earnings from $68,400 to $97,000, and raising the payroll tax by 0.02 percent annually. Others, such as Robert Ball, the former Commissioner of Social Security, have suggested investing a portion of the Trust Fund in stocks and bonds. (Ball’s plan would also give individuals the option of investing additional funds in private accounts.) Both plans would preserve current, defined benefits.

We all have a stake in the debate over Social Security. Individual investment accounts “would inevitably require large cuts in Social Security’s defined benefits and make retirement income overly dependent on the risks of the stock and bond markets” (Statement of Principles, New Century Alliance for Social Security). We must let our Congresspeople know that we oppose any proposal that would gamble with Social Security.

Stephen Gorin is Executive Director of the New Hampshire Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 21, 1998.