Posts tagged with: social security

With the ongoing budget debate there is much discussion about what to cut and what not to cut, whether taxes should be raised, and if we should avoid even considering cutting certain programs. At the center of the discussion is the state of entitlement programs.

One program everyone in Washington seems to be leery of is Social Security. Whether it is because of ideologically supporting the program or afraid of ruining a political career, Social Security, again, may remain untouched. Political culture has taught elected officials to avoid the topic of reforming Social Security. In the past, those who have attempted to address issues related to it have been demonized. And when re-election time came around, many private interest groups made sure to fund ads to negatively attack anyone’s past attempts of reforming Social Security. However, with our current debt crisis and economic problems, now is not the time to ignore Social Security. Leadership is needed to tackle the hard problems.

Social Security has run aground. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that program will officially run out of money by 2037 if the program is not reformed.  Furthermore, the CBO also projects that this year Social Security will collect $45 billion less in payroll taxes than it pays out.

Just as alarming as the lack of leadership is the number of Americans who benefit from it who will be dramatically affected if Social Security does fail. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA) over 54 million Americans will receive $730 billion in benefits in 2011, these numbers also includes those who are disabled our receiving survivor benefits. For the month of February, the SSA paid over $58 billion to its beneficiaries. The numbers get even more daunting when they are coupled with the number of Americans who rely on Social Security as their sole source of income.

The SSA states, “Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 22 percent of married couples and about 43 percent of unmarried persons rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more than their income.” The Institute of Women’s Policy Research also provides alarming numbers. According to their data, in 2009, 29 percent of women and 20 percent of men relied on Social Security for all of their income. It is important to keep in mind that Social Security provides many elderly members with the necessary money to avoid poverty. As a result, instead of letting Social Security continue to run its unsustainable course, it is imperative to fix to program so vulnerable members in our society can continue to be aided by it. (more…)

A commentary by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg titled “Deficit Denial, American Style” which was published in Acton News & Commentary on March 9th appeared today in the Detroit News as “It’s time to curb welfare growth” and was also picked up by RealClearPolitics. Gregg provides an enlightening examination on the growth of the welfare system, and with our current budget problems, the need to also reform it:

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

The original Acton commentary by Samuel Gregg can be read in full here.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, March 10, 2011
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A new commentary from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up here to get the latest opinion pieces delivered to your email inbox on Wednesday with the free weekly Acton News & Commentary.

Deficit Denial, American-Style

By Samuel Gregg

Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’

Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?

Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?

Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?

Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”

Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.

One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.

Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Jordan Ballor has already done a fine job of commenting on A Call for Intergenerational Justice, and I’m sure that others will be chiming in on the PowerBlog as well. I’d like to focus on a couple of points that stand out to me from an initial reading of the document.

I suppose it says something about a document when you can’t finish reading the title without alarm bells going off. “Intergenerational Justice” is a fine sounding term, but what does it mean in the context of the statement? While it isn’t spelled out in any detail, my best guess based on the text and the known political positions of many of the signers is that “intergenerational justice” refers to a continuation of the various Federal entitlement programs that make up the lion’s share of the mandatory portion of the Federal budget. To wit:

“Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded.” 

The only program specifically mentioned in the document is Social Security. The authors of the statement believe that the program can be modestly changed, but no indication is given that any radical reform will be tolerated:

“We must make Social Security sustainable. We can slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security.” 

I think it’s fair to infer from the limited detail provided by the writers of this statement that there is little enthusiasm for major reform of the core Federal entitlement programs that ultimately lie at the root of our debt problem, and no consideration of the idea that these programs may have been ill-concieved, or that the Federal government might not be an appropriate vehicle for meeting such basic human needs. The programs are there, and for the demands of “intergenerational justice” to be satisfied, they must remain in place.

Absent from the discussion, however, is any mention of the intergenerational injustice that these social programs represent in the first place. For instance: I’m in my mid-thirties. I cannot remember any time since I became politically aware that I believed Social Security would be solvent and able to provide benefits to me when I reach old age. Politicians and commentators have been talking about the coming collapse of Social Security since I’ve been reading political commentary. Various temporary fixes to the program have been enacted, but none of them fix the structural problems that plague the program and lead to the ongoing crisis – they just shove the inevitable bankruptcy back by a decade or two (and the same is true of Medicare and other similar entitlements).

And this is nothing new. Today, I just happened to pick up John Samples’ The Struggle to Limit Government and read the following passage describing the arguments over Social Security in its early years:

The intergenerational character of Social Security attracted criticism from the start. M. Albert Linton, an insurance executive and advisor to the program, argued that Social Security would create a large and intolerable burden on future generations. He noted that Social Security’s experts planned eventually to devote as much as 20 percent of taxable payroll to benefits, a sum that the generation of 1939 had not devoted to the program. Why should the current generation be allowed to commit future generations to a burden it would not now impose on itself? Linton’s admonition had no effect on Social Security officials. During a presentation about the future of the program, the council’s chair, J. Douglas Brown, remarked, “Après moi le déluge.” Future generations could take care of themselves; the experts of 1939, not to mention the politicians running in 1940, had little interest in what happened to people who did not exist. 

So, Wallis et al., what say you? If the programs you so desire to save were designed in a way that took no account of their sustainability or of the wellbeing of future generations, and if those same problems persist today and even threaten to completely overwhelm the Federal fisc, why the insistence on saving them? Is there no other way to provide for human needs than through a bureaucracy? It strikes me as odd to demand the maintenance of fiscally crippling entitlements in the name of intergenerational justice when just treatment for future generations was of no concern to the designers of the entitlements in the first place.

One additional point from the “Call” jumped out at me from the “Core Proposals” section. Specifically:

“We must reform the tax code. We should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive.” 

There is a lot to agree with in that statement – the Federal tax code is monstrous, and it is very likely that there is no one person with the capability to understand it in all of its intricacy. It is filled with all manner of loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies, and needs to be brought under control if we have any hope of understanding exactly how Washington obtains and distributes its revenue. But why the insistence that the tax code remain “progressive”? Why must that be part of any “Christian” proposal to address our nation’s debt crisis? Is progressive taxation truly just? When I read that statement, I recalled reading a contrary opinion from one of my favorite theologians and commentators, R.C. Sproul, on just this issue:

Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came and examined the great American experiment of democracy, said two things can destroy this experiment: One is when people learn that their vote is worth money, that you can bribe people to get their vote or that you can use the vote to somehow shelter yourself from financial or other obligations imposed upon others. Have we taken the blindfold away from lady justice? Are we not all equal under the law? 

On the contrary, we have an income tax structure today that is inherently unjust. We almost never hear anybody discuss this injustice. But when God set up a system of taxation, He did things differently. God said I’m going to impose a tax on my people and it’s going to be ten percent from everybody: The rich man and the poor man are not going to pay the same amount. The rich man’s going to pay much more than the poor man, but they’re both going to pay the same percentage. They’re both going to have the same responsibility. That way the rich man can’t use his power to exploit the poor man, saying, “I’m going to pay five percent, but you’re going to pay fifty percent.” The rich weren’t allowed to do that. Nor were the poor allowed to say, “We’re going to pay five percent and the rich are going to pay fifty percent because they can afford it.” What that is ladies and gentlemen is the politics of envy that legalizes theft. Anytime you vote a tax on somebody else that is not a tax on yourself, you’re stealing from your brother. And though the whole world does it and though it’s common practice in the United States of America, a Christian shouldn’t be caught dead voting to fill his own pocketbook at the expense of someone else. Isn’t that plain? Isn’t that clear? And until we get some kind of flat tax, we’re going to have a politicized economy, we’re going to have class warfare, and we’re going to have the whole nation’s rule being determined by the rush for economic advantage at the polls. Don’t do it. Even if that means sacrificing some benefit you might receive from the federal government. Don’t ask other people at the point of a gun to give you from their pockets what you don’t have. That’s sin.

I don’t write any of this to call into question the Christian commitment of any of the signers of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In fact, I have little doubt that the signers of the document do indeed have a deep concern for the poorer members of society that they hope to defend in their actions. I’m more interested in pointing out that this document is exactly what its subtitle claims it to be: “A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” Emphasis on A. It is not the Christian proposal; it is simply one of many responses that well-intentioned Christians can have to our current crisis. And it is entirely possible that well-intentioned people can have blind spots or propose economically flawed solutions to pressing problems. That seems to be a big part of what’s going on here.

In yesterday’s edition of the Grand Rapids Press, editorial page editor Ed Golder reflects on the implications of the historically-high levels of government spending, the deficit, and debt.

Most impressively, Golder notes where the government is actually spending money, and it is largely not in the areas of discretionary spending that so many politicians like to talk about. Golder writes,

Neither party is forthrightly honest about what needs to be done. Making the necessary cuts touches on very large and politically sacrosanct programs. About one fifth of federal spending, for instance, is defense. Can we seriously tackle the budget without looking at some prized weapons programs?

And the biggest category of spending, the one growing at the fastest rate, is entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and health insurance for children.

We may have to accept the idea that rich people will pay more than poorer people for medical coverage. We will almost certainly, given life expectancies, have to work longer before receiving Social Security benefits.

Reform of defense spending is important. But the real key is entitlement reform. I’ve often thought that one lasting legacy of the Bush era (beyond the wars and the Great Recession) is found in his insistence on bringing to the national discussion the issue of entitlement reform, particularly Social Security. He wasn’t successful, but it did show some principled political courage to make Social Security reform a major policy goal of his administration.

Golder also relates this entertaining little anecdote:

Speaking to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids Monday, financial forecaster Jason Trennert, was asked by an audience member to handicap Washington’s ability to make meaningful headway in tackling the debt. He wryly quoted theologian Augustine of Hippo, who famously quipped, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

In other words: Sure, we’ll reform. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s here. Heck, tomorrow may be yesterday at this point.

That’s one other legacy of the Bush era that we are living with, the legacy of the mantra, “Lord, make me thrifty, but not yet.” That goes for the politician as well as for the citizen.

Golder rightly concludes by pointing to the need for leadership on these pressing fiscal issues. We’ve gotten to this place largely because of a lack of political leadership. “Our leaders have to talk frankly about what needs to be done – programs that will be cut, individual sacrifices that will have to be made,” writes Golder.

Instead of statesmen we’ve been electing those who could bring home the most pork for their districts and constituencies, damn the consequences. That needs to change, and it begins in the renewal of leadership in other spheres of social life, including the family, business, charity, education, and so on.

Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America.  Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda.  But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with.  Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power.  Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life.  For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change.   Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc.  All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life?  And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals.  The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs.  Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference.  Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market.  We already know how that story ends.  And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.

It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are.  Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place.  The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit.  The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries.  As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.

At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
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Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

––––

Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.