Can Retirees Count on Future Social Security Benefits?
By Tom Margenau
Nov 5, 2010
Old Folks' Demands Lead to Young Reader's Concerns - Question: I am a 29-year-old married woman who reads your column. You seem to get an overwhelming number of letters from senior citizens with one common theme:
"We deserve more money!"
My husband and I must be paying double or triple the amount of taxes these people paid into the system. And we don't expect to get anything out of it.
Yet these people who contributed relatively small amounts into Social Security just cry out for "more, more, more!" I wonder if they worry about the burden this is placing on their children and grandchildren. I'm not even sure my husband and I can afford to have the children we've always wanted because we're going to be spending so much of our income to support these older people. I enjoy reading your column, but it makes me so pessimistic.
Do we have any hope for our future?
Answer: First of all, thanks for reading the column. You must be among my youngest readers! And thank you so much for your letter. You've voiced the often unheard concerns that many young people feel about Social Security. I have also been surprised by the number of emails I've been receiving from older folks griping about not getting enough money from Social Security, and I've wanted to write about this issue.
But your e-mail voiced these concerns more dramatically than I ever could have done. You are justified to be despondent about the avarice of some older folks. But I think you are wrong about the hopelessness for the future. I'll try to explain.
I probably get a couple dozen e-mails each day from folks complaining that they're being "cheated" out of Social Security benefits -- because they won't be getting a cost-of-living increase next year, they're getting another pension that reduces their Social Security benefit, their neighbor gets more than they do, and on and on. Of course, some of these people have legitimate problems with the amount of their Social Security check. But most people just want more money.
As you implied in your letter, many of these folks simply don't realize what a great deal Social Security has been for them. Almost all of the older elderly (folks in their 70s, 80s and above) have made a killing from Social Security. They got back in benefits everything they put into the system in just a couple years. And everything they've received for years on top of that is just icing on the cake. Icing paid for by folks like you!
Baby boomers (people my age) will not do quite as well as these older folks. But we're going to do well enough under Social Security that we should quit griping and just be thankful we're getting the kind of benefits we are. We're not getting rich off of Social Security (we weren't supposed to), but especially if we did the right amount of financial planning, our Social Security checks combined with other pensions, savings and investments will keep us quite comfortable in retirement.
So that's where you are right. Sadly, many older folks are putting unwarranted financial demands on an already-stressed system. And I find it interesting that many of the same people who are clamoring for less government want more money from that government.
But now let me address your hopelessness issue. I'll start out by telling you this true story. I began working for the Social Security Administration about 40 years ago. My job involved speaking to local groups about Social Security. And the very first question I ever got (it was actually more of a comment) was from a 40-something guy. It went something like this: "I am convinced Social Security won't be there for me when I retire. I have no hope for the future of this government boondoggle!" Of course (assuming that person is still alive), he's probably been getting Social Security benefits for 20 or more years now.
When I first joined SSA, my mentor was one of the agency's pioneers: an older guy who had been around since the program started. And he used to tell me that the first comment he heard in 1936 was: "I don't think this New Deal fiasco will last. It certainly won't be there when I retire."
My point is, people have been questioning the future of Social Security for 75 years now! And the program just keeps marching along, currently taking care of its fourth generation of retirees. Of course, just because it's been around for 75 years doesn't mean it will be around for another 75 years. But here is why I'm convinced it will be. Every civilized country on the planet has a social insurance system in place for its citizens.
In other words, people around the world recognize that society must do something to take care of older people, to take care of disabled people, and to take care of the widows, widowers and children of a family breadwinner who dies at a young age. And the mechanism that every country on the planet uses to do this is a Social Security system. Surprisingly, most of these programs are quite similar. And many countries are facing problems like our own: they have a quickly aging citizenry.
So what's a country to do? Well, we've recently learned about the protests in France because they plan to raise their retirement age from 60 to 62. Once Congress in this country gets gutsy enough to deal with our long-term Social Security problems, we'll have similar protests, too. Nobody likes change! But Social Security will change. With some relatively modest reforms, Social Security can be made fiscally sound for people of your generation. My hunch is that Social Security taxes might go up slightly, and/or they will increase the wage base -- the amount of earning subject to the Social Security tax. Also, the age of retirement may creep up to 68 (it's currently set to go up to 67).
Social Security has changed a lot in the last 75 years. It will change in the next 75 years. But it will always be there. We are civilized people and will always come together to take care of our elderly, our disabled and our orphans. For sure, Social Security won't be as good a deal for you as it was for your grandparents and parents. But it will be there when you retire, providing you with a comfortable enough nest egg that you should supplement with other investments.
And one way you can guarantee that Social Security will be there for you is by having those kids you've always wanted! After all, it's your kids who will be paying for your future Social Security benefits.
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