Why everyone should care about this report on Social Security

A sign is seen on the entrance to a Social Security office in New York City, U.S., July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RC14BAB59BA0
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post on September 9, 2019.

You are interested in Social Security, aren’t you?

Of course you are. Everyone is — or at least, everyone should be. Virtually everyone is either collecting Social Security benefits or paying taxes to support those benefits — or both, if you are among the increasing proportion of beneficiaries who continue to work.

You might also be worried by news that Social Security revenue and reserves are not going to cover all benefits at some time in the future. Or at least you should be, since the projected shortfall could have major implications on the program in the not-too-distant future.

And so I imagine you must be interested in the report recently released by the Social Security Administration that contains a comprehensive menu of actions that Congress can take to fix those problems. Or at least, you should be; it’s easy to read and free for anyone to look at on the agency’s website.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting this publication is a compelling alternative to “The Big Bang Theory” or Sunday night football. But elections are coming, and our interests should reflect that. Candidates, so far mostly silent about Social Security, should find that ignoring public concern about the nation’s most popular and important program is bad strategy.

You’ll learn what those measures cost or save. You’ll be able to read brief and understandable explanations of each of them. The options come with color charts that show graphically how each change would affect Social Security’s finances. And, if you can’t tell the program without the players, you’ll be able to see which member of Congress or organization proposed them.

If you think that the best way to fix Social Security’s long-run financial shortfall is to cut benefits, the agency’s report shows ways Congress could do that. If you think that the way to close the long-term funding gap is to raise taxes while maintaining benefits, you will find a couple of dozen ways to do that, too. If you think that Social Security should give benefit credits to those who stay home to care for children, the elderly or people with disabilities, or that the very old should receive additional benefits because they suffer from higher poverty rates than the not-so-old, this is the place to go for a menu of ways to do those things and make a lot of other changes that you might not have thought of.

The report also shows how far apart the two parties are on how to deal with Social Security’s long-run funding challenge. Democrats in the House have proposed increasing payroll taxes enough to close the long-run funding gap and to raise benefits. House Republicans would cut benefits enough to close the long-run funding gap and cut taxes as well. Of course, there are other options in between.

There is another reason to care about Social Security: According to recent reports, President Trump might propose cuts to the program’s payroll taxes to offset a feared economic slowdown. The media failed to note that doing so would deepen the long-term gap in Social Security financing by draining funds from the trust fund that supports benefits.

When you listen to the Democratic candidate debates and, later, to the debates between the Republican and Democratic nominees, understanding what the candidates propose to do about the nation’s No. 1 domestic program could help you decide which candidate you support.

I realize that boning up on the specific ways to deal with the finances and benefits of Social Security is, to put it mildly, not everyone’s wildest ambition. But keep in mind that the Social Security payroll tax is probably the largest tax you pay each year and that Social Security is the largest single source of income for the elderly — and we all aspire one day to be elderly. So, this program matters to you. Why not learn more about it, especially because it is so easy to do?