Editorial: Social Security’s future remains threatened


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It’s not even October yet, and the November midterm elections are heating up. Iowa’s Senate candidates Joni Ernst (Republican) and Bruce Braley (Democrat) participated in their first debate on Sunday. The event became tense at the end as each attacked the other for the support they have attracted from rich and powerful donors. As the two walked off stage, one would have been hard-pressed to call their relations friendly.

One of the most important issues raised, however, was about how they would represent the state in handling America’s most gripping fiscal issue, Social Security.

Ernst has attacked Braley for considering raising the retirement age. Braley did tell the Gazette in 2006 that raising the eligibility age may need to be done. This year, he has abandoned the idea.

Instead, his position is that by removing the current limit of the amount of income that is allocated to Social Security, there would be enough resources to keep the program running. Raising the minimum wage would also be included in his plan to increase the required revenue.

Braley, on the other hand, slammed Ernst for proposing to privatize Social Security. Ernst did not disagree: “Yes, I have talked about privatizing Social Security as an option.” The proposition is generally a dangerous one among voters. More than 58 million Americans are Social Security beneficiaries, and the effects of privatization on their quality of care are uncertain. Perhaps feeling this pressure, Ernst agreed that “… we really don’t know which is the best way to go yet.”

The handling of Social Security is a popular dance in the world of politics. Everyone agrees that something needs to done, but no solution can accommodate every side.

For retirees born after 1960, the retirement age is 67. As of 2009, 86 percent of single people over 65 receive Social Security benefits. The average monthly benefit for a retired worker in 2011 was $1,234.

Social Security was developed in 1935 through the Social Security Act and was meant as a federal support for the elderly. The program asked citizens to pay into a federal retirement fund that would pay them back when they were too old for employment. It worked — there were even surpluses.

The problem is that the government didn’t let the money just sit; it’s often used to fund other projects unrelated to Social Security. In fact, as of 2011 the government borrowed approximately $2.5 trillion from the surpluses of the fund for other purposes. Now that the enormous amount of baby boomers are cashing in their share, the program is no longer sustainable.

The trustees of the Social Security and Medicare release a report every year on the status of the programs. The 2014 Annual Report predicts that the funds will be depleted by 2033. By that year, payroll taxes will cover only about 75 percent of the required obligations. The same year was provided in last year’s report. That’s only 19 years away.

It’s clear that while Social Security provides a valuable service, the program has not been managed very wisely. The rising number of retirees has put the program at risk, and the issue has to be dealt with. The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that the time for politics here is over. It’s a candidate’s job to paint her or his opponent as incompetent in dealing with issues such as Social Security, but too much is at stake for the normal dance. Regardless of whether Ernst or Braley is elected, they will need to put aside their attacks and focus on finding a solution. Either way, we probably won’t see any effort toward reform until the next debt-ceiling showdown, and by that time, it may be too late for any meaningful dialogue.  

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