Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Monday in the Miami Herald.
In July, trustees announced that for the first time since 1983 Social Security will pay out more in benefits, by $41 billion, than it receives in payroll taxes. That announcement, along with the long-term insolvency in Social Security funding, should serve as a warning that the nation's public retirement system is in need of repair.
But before reaching out for drastic solutions, Congress and President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- which is considering a variety of changes -- should keep an open mind regarding all the alternatives. Some are definitely worse than others.
Social Security is a vital part of the nation's economy. Roughly one in six Americans, about 53 million -- including retirees, disabled workers, and dependents -- draw Social Security benefits. Over the years, it's been necessary to tweak the system now and again. The payroll tax has climbed from 2 percent in 1937 to 12.4 percent today -- half paid by workers, half by employers. In 1983, Congress enacted comprehensive changes, including raising payroll taxes and reducing benefits.
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Now, more tweaks are on the table.
By 2037, Social Security will pay out only 75 percent of scheduled benefits because the trust fund will have been drained. The reason is largely demographic. An aging population ensures that more money flows out of the fund than the amount received.
Raise the retirement age, some say. Not so fast. Some seniors, unemployed by the recession, are already taking early retirement, at age 62 in many cases, just to have a monthly check in the absence of a job. Many others, including those with physically demanding jobs, should not be asked to work longer.
Another proposed suggestion is to once again raise the tax on payrolls, from 12.4 percent to 14 percent. The drawback is that this proposal would be a disincentive for employers to hire more workers, prolonging the recession.
Cutting benefits is probably the least attractive proposal. The average monthly benefit is about $1,150 or $14,000 yearly, not a grand sum by any measure. Reducing payouts is unfair to those who have earned the right to a decent retirement.
Another suggestion is to raise the level of wages subject to a payroll tax beyond the current cap of $106,800, or to impose a means test on benefits. Retirees with more assets would get less. That could prove politically abrasive. It shifts more of the burden on the rich and well-off to provide for everyone else.
Social Security celebrated its 75th anniversary in August. It's a tremendous success story. Keeping it that way won't be easy, but fixing it is necessary. Congress is duty-bound to make sure that whatever solutions it comes up with do the least harm to current and future retirees.