I am one of those lucky people who like my jobs. I’ve got a couple of them that come with several dozen bosses and several hundred thousand readers who don’t always agree with me but I’ve got a lot of freedom. I better enjoy them because the Federal government is going to make me put in another 25 years at the grindstone.
I got a dose of age last week. I called the hot line that will get you your own Social Security statement dating back to the first year that you ever worked chronicling how much you earned and how much the government is going to give you every month when you turn 62, 66 or work until you are 70.
Since I started out in high school working in the newspaper business the earnings of my early years were a bit lean. Adjusted for inflation nearly thirty years later and they aren’t all that much better now. That’s why what I have banked in Social Security ought to be working harder for me instead of the government of the United States.
Except that’s what it does. The American coin of the realm slogan, ‘in God we trust, all others pay cash’ was never truer than in the Social Security system. It’s called a $4.7 trillion trust fund because Congress uses it every day for highways, funding for the arts, space shots and their interminable political investigations of each other. So the trust part is that we have to trust that the next generation in Congress will pay us what this generation of Congress has already spent. Figure its kind of a $4.7 trillion IOU, written in pencil on a wet piece of paper. Could be hard to read in 25 years.
In 1935 when Social Security was invented America was in the midst of the Great Depression. Since its infancy the country had never seen such massive economic hardship. President Roosevelt moved a plan to help the poorest of the elderly. Even in those bleak days that meant about 1 in 15 working Americans got some small relief. As the program matured, especially during President Johnson’s reign of the Great Society, it gave new meaning to even Washington largesse until today, as we age, about one in 6 Americans get some form of Social Security cash assistance each month.
In Pennsylvania that ratio is closer to 1 in 5 residents. For the last statewide accounting period available from the Social Security Administration, December 1998, more than 2.3 million Pennsylvanians were getting an average benefit of $741 a month from the Federal Government hitting a record of nearly $1.8 billion a month. If that number doesn’t stagger you consider that just Social Security payments in the state of Pennsylvania alone in 1998 were roughly equivalent to the entire state budget for the same fiscal year. And it’s getting worse. If unchecked by 2015 Social Security will pay out more benefits than it takes in and 10 years later the system could only pay out 72 cents on the dollar. That’s in today’s dollars and what will today’s $3 a gallon milk cost in 2025?
Undoubtedly in this presidential election year the Social Security trust has moved to the top of the rhetorical hit parade with either candidate making little difference in their approach. Gore says “prescriptions for everyone” while Bush says, “no one should be without prescriptions.” Ignoring the fact that 23 states already have prescription drug plans for seniors most of them funded by lottery profits. And neither candidate will have the courage for the true answer because politically it would loosen the Capital Beltways’ grip on our aging population. That’s the kind of power that could only be wrestled from their cold dead fingers.
The real answer is to let us out of the system. Privatize social security. While Bush may have some vague plan to allow us to invest 3 to 5% of our money we should have all of it. Someday if you want the real lesson of just how bad the Social Security system is call 1.800.772.1213 and ask for your personal Social Security profile. If you’re like most Americans you will be surprised at how much you’ve earned and saddened by how little you have for retirement. Then consider the number of years that your Social Security funds are going to be played by Washington. Then call your banker and ask them what they could do with that money for the next 25 years or so, or better yet an investment broker with a responsible fund. Then think about what level of poverty you want to achieve during your retirement and call your representative in Congress and say: “let me out.”