Social Security Still Keeping Its Promises

As America's biggest safety net turns 75, let's make sure it can keep delivering for another 75 years.

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Social Security celebrates its 75th birthday this weekend, and it's hard not to draw parallels between 2010 and 1935. Now, as then, we are struggling with a serious erosion of the national and world economies. This is a stubborn downturn that has kept us on a roller coaster in terms of where things are headed. That was true 75 years ago as well.

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Histories of that period tend to compress events that spanned a decade into a few pages. Looking at daily newspaper accounts in the 1930s, it's clear that people were confused about where things were headed and that leading government and business institutions didn't have the answers. Each day brought new assertions of both gloom and impending prosperity. But, honestly, the experts didn't know then and they don't know now. We are in waters that have not been charted for 75 years, and we don't respond well to this uncertainty.

Social Security, however, has not been uncertain. It has performed as promised when so many other financial and workplace promises have been broken. Among all the programs that historically have fulfilled government commitments to the people, Social Security is certainly near the top of the list if not at the top. At a time when government is being questioned and often ridiculed, the importance of society's most important safety net is hard to exaggerate.

That importance was emphasized in a public opinion survey about Social Security commissioned and just released by AARP. The results are hardly surprising, and some of the polling questions seem incapable of yielding a negative response. For example, do you think Social Security should continue to help disabled people? How could anyone say no to that? And in a pre-emptive strike against reviving Bush Administration proposals to invest some of Social Security revenues in private 401(k)-like investments, the poll says Americans oppose this by a ratio of four to one.

Truth be told, AARP and other senior organizations are worried that President Obama's deficit-reduction commission will reduce Social Security benefits as a way of closing budget deficits. Given that Social Security has never added a penny to the deficit and, in fact, is funded outside the federal budget process, such logic is dubious. But any program that runs a deficit may be fair game. And while Social Security is now funded to pay 100 percent of all promised benefits until 2037, and 75 percent of benefits thereafter, it is running deficits and needs shoring up.

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By the way, the poll showed that only 20 percent of the public understands the exact nature of the program's financial challenges. In part because of this lack of knowledge, only about 35 percent of Americans are confident in the future of the program. The truth is not nearly so scary.

I have chided public-interest groups that oppose any curbs on senior programs. After all, since Social Security began in 1935 and Medicare 30 years later, in 1965, the percentage of people 65 and older in poverty has fallen from roughly 30 percent to 9 percent -- lower than the rate for children and, in fact, the lowest of any age group. I don't wish to roll back the clock but only to point out that in a period of widespread economic sacrifice, maybe there's a way seniors could shoulder more of the load.

That's happening with health reform, where cutbacks in Medicare spending will, over time, help pay for many expanded health benefits for other Americans. But it should not happen with Social Security. The financial value of this program has been elevated during the recession,. When private nest eggs, investment values, and home prices were all running south as fast as possible, Social Security was there for more than 50 million beneficiaries.

Looking ahead, the program faces relatively easy corrective changes that need not trim benefits in any serious way. Putting the program back on a solid footing for the next 75 years would honor one of the government's most important promises to older citizens. But it also would rejuvenate that promise to younger workers as well. Giving them a tangible reason to believe what the government says would be, as the commercial says, priceless.

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