The phone rings. It's your 75-year-old Aunt Mildred, the one who always helped you and your brother financially after your father died. She also helped your first cousins whose mom was disabled, and always had a little extra for her brother Steve who had difficulty making ends meet after he retired. Aunt Mildred is calling to ask for your help in managing her finances. She wants to be able to continue to help her family as she ages, and she wants to continue to help her family members with the greatest unmet needs.
Like your Aunt Mildred, the Social Security system at age 75 needs some assistance to manage its finances and continue helping the people of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States who receive its benefits in the event of disability, death, and retirement.
The nature of the "75-year tune-up" for the Social Security system, for which shortfalls are projected within the coming years, is likely to be shaped by the deliberations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The panel was established by President Obama to report to Congress by Dec. 1 on ways to create a balanced budget by 2015, and it is eyeing the Social Security system as a potential source of revenue to help achieve this goal.
Making cuts to the Social Security program to help balance the budget, however, would fly in the face of public sentiment (See Page & Jacobs's "Deficits, Social Security, and the American Public") and would leave impoverished many who are already economically vulnerable -- in particular the 54 percent of unmarried elderly African Americans and the 62 percent of unmarried elderly Hispanics who rely on Social Security benefits for 90 percent or more of their income. The average annual Social Security income for African American and Hispanic men and women 65 years and older is only $13,000 or less, meaning many who have worked throughout their lifetimes are impoverished during their retirement years.
Americans value and support Social Security. A 2009 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 54 percent of all Americans - and 68 percent of African Americans -- think that the Social Security system should provide a minimum standard of living to all contributors, even if some receive benefits exceeding the value of their contributions. Large majorities -- 92 percent of African Americans and 83 percent of both white Americans and all Americans -- also believe that Social Security should provide long-term low-wage workers support sufficient to meet their basic needs.
Americans want to strengthen the Social Security system and do not want to use its revenues to balance the federal budget. When asked in a poll conducted by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) last year whether they favored strengthening the Social Security program or tapping its reserves as a means to reduce the national deficit, two-thirds of Americans -- including 73 percent of African Americans and 67 percent of Hispanics -- responded that they favored strengthening the Social Security system.
How should we do this? One approach is to simultaneously make changes to ensure the solvency of the system and enhance the adequacy of benefits. For example, eliminating the wage cap -- the earnings level at which Social Security FICA taxes are no longer deducted -- and reducing the proportion of earnings above the current cap of $106,800 counted toward future benefits would generate an additional 2.17 percent of taxable payroll over 75 years, as estimated by the National Academy of Social Insurance. Meanwhile, updating the special minimum benefit to 125 percent of the federal poverty level for a 30-year worker at full-benefit age is estimated to cost the system just an additional 0.13 percent of taxable payroll over 75 years. This pair of changes would net the Social Security system an estimated 2.04 percent increase in taxable income, more than enough to close the projected deficit of 2 percent.
The 75th birthday is a time to take stock for both Aunt Mildred and the Social Security system. The best course for both is to seek advice and help from others, but to make changes with great care. For too many Americans -- especially low-wage workers and people of color -- Social Security is an economic lifeline. Severing this lifeline will not help us as a nation achieve lasting budget balance. Nor will it allow us to sleep comfortably at night, knowing that we have removed the economic safety net for so many of the most needy.
Wilhelmina Leigh is a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.