Graphic courtesy of New America Foundation

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Don’t cut Social Security, DOUBLE It

By Steven Hill

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, a debate over Social Security is heating up. This debate raises fundamental questions about the kind of society in which Americans wish to live. So far, the debate has been between deficit-busters who say Social Security must be trimmed back to reduce government indebtedness and others who want to maintain it as is.

But the New America Foundation just released a study that proposes a different approach: doubling the current Social Security payout, and making it a true national retirement system. Creating a more robust system of “Social Security Plus” not only would be good for American retirees, but also would be good for the greater macro economy.

Here’s the dilemma that the U.S. faces. Since WWII, retirement has been conceived as a “three-legged stool,” with the three legs being Social Security, pensions, and personal savings centered around home ownership. But today, most private sector employers have quit providing pensions, and state and local governments’ public pensions are drastically underfunded.

In addition, a collapsed housing and stock market, combined with increased inequality even before the Great Recession, have drastically reduced Americans’ personal savings. In short, the “retirement stool” no longer is stable and secure, and suddenly Social Security, which always has been viewed as a supplement to private savings, is the only leg left for hundreds of millions of Americans.

Studies show that people in the bottom two income quartiles depend on Social Security for 84 percent of their retirement income, and even the second richest quartile depends on Social Security for 55 percent of its retirement income. Only the richest 25 percent of Americans don’t rely heavily on Social Security.

But the real problem with Social Security is not, as its critics say, that it is underfunded. Contrary to gloomy predictions, the program is on solid financial footing, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that Social Security can pay all scheduled benefits out of its own tax revenue stream through at least 2037.

The bigger problem is that Social Security’s payout is so meager.  This is problematic since Social Security has been thrust into its new role as a de facto national retirement plan. Currently, it replaces only about 33 to 40 percent of a worker’s average wage from the year prior to retirement (compared to Germany where it replaces 70 percent). That is simply not enough money to live on when it is your primary — perhaps your only — source of retirement income.

Doubling Social Security’s individual payout would cost about $650 billion annually for the 51 million Americans who receive benefits. Here are some ways to pay for it.

First, lift Social Security’s payroll cap that favors the wealthy. Currently, Social Security only taxes wages up to $106,800 a year, and any income earned above that is not taxed. The net result is that poor, middle class, and even moderately upper middle class Americans are taxed 12.4 percent (split between employee and employer) on 100 percent of their income, but the wealthy pay a much lower percentage. Millionaire bankers effectively pay a paltry 1.2 percent.

Making all income levels pay the same percentage — that’s how Medicare works – is popular with Americans and would raise about $377 billion.

Second, with all Americans receiving Social Security Plus, employer-based pensions would be redundant, so businesses no longer would need to receive the substantial federal deductions they currently accrue for providing employees’ retirement plans. These deductions total a whopping $126 billion annually.

Those two provisions alone would provide three-fourths of the revenue needed to double Social Security’s payout. Other possible revenue streams exist, such as reducing or eliminating other unfair deductions in the tax code which currently allow the top 20 percent of income earners to reap generous deductions that most low and moderate income Americans cannot enjoy. These include deductions for private retirement savings, home ownership, health care and education. For example, individuals who have enough income to divert for savings or investment are allowed considerable tax deductions for their 401(k)s, IRAs and pensions. Similarly the home ownership deduction for mortgage interest only benefits people with sufficient income to buy a home. But the poor and working class rarely can take advantage of these since they don’t make enough to itemize deductions.

These personal deductions were enacted by Congress in part as a means to incentivize savings. While a certain number of moderate income Americans benefit from these, if we enacted Social Security Plus they would no longer need to rely on these deductions as vehicles for retirement savings. Instead of buying a home as part of their retirement plan — which as we have seen is a risky investment — they could put their money into Social Security Plus.

We also could implement this in stages, targeting first those who are most in need. We also could allow active seniors who have not yet reached full retirement age to take a half-pension and work half-time without losing their right to a full pension upon their retirement.

An expansion of Social Security — one of the most successful and popular social programs in American history, currently celebrating its 75th year — would be good for the macro-economy as well because it would act as an “automatic stabilizer” during economic downturns, keeping money in retirees’ pockets and stimulating consumer demand. Benefits would be portable when changing from one job to another.

It also would help American businesses trying to compete with foreign companies that don’t provide pensions to their employees, since those countries already have generous national retirement plans. And it would be broadly fair, since even those higher income Americans who are losing their tax deductions would see part of it returned to them in the form of a greater Social Security payout.

In short, Social Security Plus would provide a stable, secure retirement for every American and contribute greatly toward a solid foundation from which to build a strong and vibrant 21st century U.S. economy.

[Steven Hill is the author of the New America Foundation’s report “Secure Retirement for All Americans” and also author of "Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age" (www.EuropesPromise.org) published recently by University of California Press]