CBS's incisive, much-needed look at the social security challenge

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How secure is social security? Around 36 million Americans now receiving benefits -- as well as the 175 million or so who expect to receive benefits in the future -- are asking that question because of the Reagan administration's announced tentative plans for cutting costs to save the system from the threat of bankruptcy.

Once again, a CBS News Special Report: "Social Insecurity" (Thursday, CBS, 10 -11 p.m., check local listings) is proving how important a public-spirited network can be. Only last month there were the five superb prime-time CBS hours on US defense.

Now this invaluably informative CBS hour is carefully calculated to answer most of the questions about the social- security future being postulated by sometimes distraught citizens whose plans for the future are seemingly endangered by contemplated changes.

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With Dan Rather as host-narrator and utilizing the pointedly concise comments of correspondents Bob Schieffer, Charles Collingwood, Bruce Morton, and Susan Spencer, executive producer Russ Bensley has emerged with a fascinating study.

Older citizens fear their benefits may be reduced, middle- aged citizes fear their retirement plans may have to be scrapped, young citizens fear they may be paying huge sums of money into a system which will never repay them.

Commentator Dan Rather early in the program poses four pertinent questions and then proceeds to have them answered -- more or less.

* Are your taxes set aside to pay for your retirement? (No.)

* If you were retiring today, how much money would you have paid into social security? (Under $15,000.)

* Is it true that more than half the families in the US now pay more in social security than in federal income tax? (Yes.)

* Is social security really running out of money? (Yes.)

Much of the trouble is caused by the fact that the members of the baby boom of several decades past will be entering retirement at a time when there has been a sharp decrease in the working-age population who will be required to pay the bills for the retired "boomers."

However, the picture is not nearly as bleak as those questions and some recent answers have made it seem. According to the experts on this documentary, it will be possible for the social-security retirement trust fund to borrow from its disability and medicare funds to maintain regular social-security payments. But sooner or later (preferably sooner), there is going to have to be a major change -- either reduced benefits, later retirement age, or something else -- to keep the system working.

But wait, all is not lost. According to this documentary's experts, a tax increase of about 1 1/2 percent split evely between employer and employee, would build up enough of a reserve to handle the drain when the full impact of the retirement of the baby boom is felt.

Conclusions? Says Dan Rather: "There is no reason for despair at the moment. Solutions are at hand. It is simply a matter of choosing among them, of acting. But unless we do that now (and he feels that there will not be changes in a political year such as 1982, so it must be this year) when today's young workers reach retirement age, the money they counted on will not be there. And we, as a nation, will have betrayed their confidence."

"Social Insecurity" contains some relievedly good news for current retires -- but it contains some dire predictions for future retirees. It constitutes a major public-service documentary, much needed in this period of pensioneering ambivalence and unc ertainty.

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