June-July '00 Articles:

Death by the
State on Trial

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Mindpower:
The Good Negro A New Kind of
(music reviews) Social Security
Unholy Alliance:
E-Mail Us
Your Comments

Archives Subscribe to IMPACT Buy IMPACT T-Shirts Back Issue Information Home

Does Social Security Belong in Reform School?

by Craig Butler
art/Eric Spitler

As the debate over "reforming" Social Security continues, three options are typically considered: raise the retirement age, decrease benefits or increase taxes. (Thankfully, discussions about privatization have been temporarily halted.) But does Social Security really need reforming?

Social Security has accrued enormous surpluses over the decades, and not by accident. These surpluses have always been intended to act as a cushion during periods when there would be more people drawing Social Security than paying into it - exactly the kind of situation we are discussing here. I should point out that the figures used to project the much-discussed shortfall are unrealistic. There is no reason to believe, as those who wish to radically alter Social Security claim, that we will average an annual growth rate of only 1.45% over the next 75 years. Even during the Great Depression, the growth rate on average was higher than that - 1.87%.

However, there is a catch, and that catch is that the government has not been honoring its commitment to the people. Those enormous surpluses which Social Security has accumulated have been siphoned off via various accounting tricks to pay down our national debt and help balance the budget. That doesn't mean that Social Security needs reforming; it means that government does.

Look at it this way: Let's say you conscientiously put away a portion of your paycheck in a savings account every week. After several decades you are ready to withdraw that money, but you go to the bank and are told, "Sorry, we've spent your money. It isn't there." You might get a little bit mad, particularly when you see other people in line getting money with no problem at all.

And that is the real situation we are in today. The government has spent your money and now we have to find something to do about it.

Of the aforementioned options for saving Social Security from a problem it never created, only raising taxes is viable. Increasing the retirement age further is not only breaking the contract which the government made with the people, it is functionally (if unintentionally) discriminatory. For example, African-American men have a significantly shorter life expectancy than the average American. Because of the disparity in income between racial groups, African-American men as a whole also tend to pay a larger percentage of their income into the Social Security system and have a greater need for Social Security benefits when they reach retirement age. Raising the age increases the amount that they pay into the system and decreases the amount of benefits they will receive.

Cutting benefits is also unwise. The cost of living in our country will continue to rise; cutting benefits will have the effect of pushing millions of elderly people with no other means of support into poverty.

As I said, raising taxes is a viable option - so long as the tax hike comes by raising (or lifting altogether) the cut-off point at which Americans stop paying into the system (currently around $68,400). There is no good reason why a person making $1,000,000 a year should pay the same amount of money into Social Security as someone making $70,000.

But there is another option: redirect the nation's priorities. For example, instead of spending tens of billions of dollars on unrealistic defense strategies which benefit no one except the Pentagon and munitions makers, devote that money to repaying Social Security. Or stop doling out money in corporate welfare and put it back in the Social Security fund. Or admit that our nation's pointless pursuit of "cheap, clean" nuclear energy has been an utter failure, cut our losses and reinvest some of that money back where it came from. Or, in a more indirect fashion, build up our tax base by investing tax dollars in industries which provide greater employment opportunities rather than paying exorbitant bonuses to executives for eliminating thousands of blue collar jobs.

In other words, stop defining ourselves as a nation which cares more about war than peace, more about sky-high profits than people, more about catering to a small class of obscenely wealthy individuals than tending to the millions whose living standards keep decreasing. And redirect our budgetary priorities to reflect this change in definition.

We wouldn't have to stop with keeping Social Security secure either, but it would certainly be a good first step. As individuals, we are told by all religions that we have an obligation to honor our parents. As a nation, we can do this by giving them the gift of financial solvency at a time when they most need it. And if we pay for this gift by redirecting our national policies in a more just and humane direction, we can give ourselves the gift of self-respect.

Email your feedback on this article to