American workers who wish to partake of the "American dream" already can — and some do. There are plenty of tax-deferred-investment options out there to help the average American save significant sums of money for retirement: 401(k) and 403(b) plans, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, Keogh plans. Yet too few people take advantage of these options. Today, Americans save a little less than five percent of their after-tax income. About a quarter of workers eligible to participate in a 401(k) plan take a pass on it. And the average household in the United States keeps a balance of about $5000 on its credit cards.
If President Bush is truly concerned about every American’s ability to look forward to a comfortable retirement, then he should take the estimated $40 billion in additional costs these "personal retirement accounts" will drain from the system and create a program of personal-finance education for our public schools.
But that won’t happen. Because no one in the Republican Party from Bush on down — or in the Democratic Party, for that matter — is going to lecture this country’s vast middle class and tell its members to start taking responsibility for their own futures. Politicians feel comfortable speaking that way only to welfare recipients. Which is why Congress actually passed the Welfare Reform Act — for better or worse — in 1996, and a Democratic president signed it into law. It’s also why we’re probably not going to see any meaningful reform of the Social Security program before disaster strikes.
So we can count on both political parties to keep pandering to the Baby Boomers who are going to hoover the Social Security program out of existence in the coming two decades. And we’ll be presented with pathetic solutions like government-supervised investments in the stock market. ("We will establish basic standards of safety and soundness, so that investments are only in steady, reliable funds," the report piously states. Those stock investments are called index funds, and no, you don’t need the government to help you get started.)
There is something deeply ironic about Republicans embracing the paternal arm of big government on an issue like retirement savings. This is what you might expect from the Democrats: no, we don’t trust you to take care of yourself, let us do it for you. And yet here we have it — the GOP as promoter of the nanny state.
It only makes sense when you realize that Bush’s Social Security Commission report will act as an elaborate smokescreen to divert our attention from the real issues: not enough Americans know how to plan for their retirements, and Social Security, which does succeed as a safety net for the most needy among us, is heading for fiscal disaster.
Today, there are only 3.4 workers per beneficiary. By 2016, the money going out will exceed the money coming in, and Social Security reserves will be tapped for the first time. By 2038, those reserves will be exhausted. We need real reform. Given that Americans live much longer today than they did just decades ago, the minimum age from which benefits can begin should be raised. Given that the program was designed as a safety net for the needy, benefits for the wealthy should be scaled back.
Bush’s plan doesn’t deal with any of that. Instead, much is made of the notion that these proposed "personal retirement accounts" can "endow workers with a measure of wealth." The commission critiques the current Social Security program as a "poor investment." It cynically notes that some workers may die before becoming eligible for their retirement benefits: "For black men age 20, only some 65 percent can be expected to survive to age 65. Thus, one of every three black youths will pay for retirement benefits they will never collect." The report makes passing reference to death benefits, but quickly notes that "many workers die before eligibility for these is established." (Of course, if the Bush administration is truly concerned about the plight of black men in this country, allowing for investment of Social Security funds in the stock market is probably not the most efficient way to address the problem.)
But none of these matters will be debated in the coming days — assuming the commission’s report gets any attention at all amid ongoing coverage of the war on terror. Thanks to the menu of options recommended by the commission, we’ll instead get a mind-numbing debate centered on rates of return, rates of real return, investment options, diversification, and on and on. None of which addresses the real problems with Social Security.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: December 13 - 20, 2001