With discussions on war, a recovering economy and homeland
security at the forefront of the presidential election, Social
Security reform has drawn limited attention from President Bush and
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry — even though it
is a ticking time bomb with serious implications for young people
if it is not reformed quickly.

Also detrimental to the future of Social Security is that
instead of proposing specific plans to overhaul the system and fix
its problems, both candidates have focused little on the younger
generation and what will happen when they retire.

Social Security funds are spiraling toward depletion and will
continue to do so, as the number of young people is decreasing and
the number of retirees in the country is expected to increase in
the next few decades — which means fewer people will be
paying taxes to support the system.

The Congressional Budgetary Office, as well as the Social
Security Administration, project that between the years 2016 and
2022, money coming into Social Security from taxes will be less
than money going out in benefits. Medicare funds are expected to
dry up even earlier.

Although both candidates have acknowledged the problems facing
Social Security, they have proposed reforms that undermine the
severity of the problem.

Kerry hopes that accelerated economic growth, combined with a
decrease in government spending, can bail out Social Security. Bush
is calling for a program that would encourage people to invest a
small portion of their benefits in stocks and other funds, instead
of having the government take care of it for them.

Both candidates have also pledged to avoid tax increases or to
decrease benefits, at least in the short term, to solve the
problem.

“Neither (Bush nor Kerry) has a real proposal,” said
Peter Diamond, an economics professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. “A politician that goes to the voter
and brings bad news hurts his election chances.”

Both candidates have avoided being the bearers of bad news for
the large part, though they sometimes address the topic.

“The Social Security trust is solvent for those who are on
Social Security today,” Bush told a crowd in Florida a few
weeks ago. “Baby boomers like me, I think, are in pretty good
shape when it comes to the Social Security trust. But we need to
worry about our children and our grandchildren.”

But with projections that Social Security funds will run dry
within the next 15 years, Bush’s loosely laid out plan of
creating personal investment accounts for young people to collect
after retirement most likely will not help the children of baby
boomers, and in some cases not even their grandchildren.

The reason behind this is what researchers point to as the
transitional costs of transforming Social Security into a program
that allows for personal investment, as Bush is proposing. They
also say this transition will further exhaust the Social Security
Trust Fund and reduce benefits in the short term.

Analysts say Bush’s plan is less concrete than it seems.
In 2001, Bush created a committee to develop a Social Security
plan, but he has not formally accepted either of the
committee’s two proposals.

While Kerry and others have criticized the president’s
ideas about Social Security reform, the plan they are blasting is
often that of the committees, which Bush has yet to endorse, said
Kent Smetters, a University of Pennsylvania business professor.

He added that Bush’s less specific plan is based on the
guidelines of not increasing the Social Security payroll tax, not
changing benefits and creating a plan that makes room for voluntary
personal retirement accounts.

Some speculate that the President’s reluctance to accept
the committee’s proposal stems from fear that he would then
have to defend a detailed proposal with its shortcomings and
criticisms before the election.

The lead criticism comes from a report from the Social Security
Administration, which finds that under the committee’s
proposal of creating a system with personal accounts. Social
Security could find itself in a deficit as early as 2006 and it
could take up to 70 years to get out of the red.

But the Congressional Budgetary Office, which evaluates fiscal
policies, finds that under this proposal Social Security would
actually be balanced 20 years earlier than the SSA’s
prediction. The differences, however, are attributed to methods of
analysis.

For this reason, Diamond remains critical of personal investment
accounts, saying that they do not provide a solution for retirees
in the immediate future.

“President Bush thought the money would just
appear,” Diamond said about the deficit that will be created
in the next 70 years, if personal accounts are to be instated.

But he added that despite the problems with Bush’s plan,
he finds nothing more promising in Kerry’s campaign.

“Kerry doesn’t have a plan because if he had a plan
he would be delivering bad news, and then the President could say,
‘(Kerry) wants to cut your benefits and I would never do
that,’ ” Diamond said. “In fact very few
Democrats have filed a plan on Social Security.”

Kerry has said hardly anything on the topic that can be
construed as actual policy, and what he has said has been
vague.

In April of this year, Kerry told Tim Russert of NBC’s
Meet the Press, “I’m not going to cut Social Security
benefits. I’m not going to extend the retirement age. And
we’re not going to have to raise the premiums.”

In other interviews and speeches, Kerry has told audiences that
he also will never privatize Social Security, sticking with the
program’s original goal of providing benefits guaranteed by
the government.

Since he has focused more on what he will not do then on actual
plans to save social security, researchers as well as Republicans
assume that Kerry will do nothing but wait for the economy to
recover.

“If you talk to some of Kerry’s advisors, off the
record, they’ll tell you, he doesn’t have a plan for
Social Security,” Smetters added.

Smetters said under Kerry’s plan, his only option is to
increase the money in the Social Security Trust Fund by improving
the economy. But this is only a short-term solution, he added,
because a surplus in the Social Security funds will eventually run
out.

In fact, since 1983, when Social Security reform began to rake
in a surplus by reducing benefits and increasing the payroll tax,
the money has largely been used to balance the federal deficit.

Researchers have proposed alternative solutions, among them a
proposal by Diamond, which calls for a combination of raising taxes
and cutting benefits to balance Social Security.

Diamond also suggests raising the maximum amount of one’s
income that can be taxed for Social Security, saying that the
current system allows wealthier Americans — who live longer
and receive benefits longer — to disproportionately benefit
from the system.

The maximum taxable amount is yet another gray area, in which
both candidates have made vague or inconsistent remarks.

This and all the other gray areas in their policies, have
allowed Bush and Kerry to slip by without solid plans on saving
Social Security, which could come at the expense of the current
generation of young Americans.

A Gallup Poll from March shows that 58 percent of young people
ages 18 to 24 are either very or somewhat dissatisfied with the
current state of Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s really just the selfishness of previous
generations,” Smetters said. “A lot of times they may
not realize they’re extracting so much, but they
are.”

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