It is all very well for the Democrats to stomp up and down gleefully and make political hay of President Reagan's "stumble" over social security reform. But, it ought to be asked, where have theym been for the last twenty years? And what do theym propose doing about an old-age security system that is adding dangerously in inflation and fast going broke? Mr. Reagan's proposed plan can perhaps be criticized in certain of its aspects. But there is no faulting his courage in taking on a nasty problem and addresing it forthrightly.
Not a little political hypocrisy is at work here -- among the public as well as the legislators. Democrats were far less vociferous when it came to the President's budget cuts. The reason is plain: their constituents were signalling they wanted to give the Reagan economic program a chance. The poor -- the most effected by the cuts -- had no political power to make their opposition felt. Now, however, the pocketbooks of all Americans, including the vast middle class, are touched and the voice of outrage is heard across the land. The lawmakers in Washington, Republicans as well s Democrats, hear that voice loud and clear and - surpise? -- have acted accordingly in dealing Mr. reagan's plan a solid rebuff.
The most controversial element of the Reagan approach is to reduce benefits for those retiring before age 65. This indeed would seem to put a hardship on those older workers planning for retirement in the immediate years ahead. But to call this, as the congressional resolution does, an "unconscionable breach of faith" with those who have been contributing to social security their whole lives is hardly a valid argument against the plan or some revised version of it. The plain truth is, the whole system is a "breach of faith" with its original aim -- to provide supplemental benefits to retirees" savings and private pensions. It has since become the sole source of funds for many retired Americans --indignant legislators -- and rising benefits have contributed to its financial crisis.
There are basically three ways out of this dilemma: raise payroll taxes, increase the age of retirement, or reduce benefits -- or combine these elements in some way. Obviously reform cannot be totally painless although it can strive to be as fair as possible. The Democrats themselves are aware of this. It should not go unnoticed that the chairman of the House social security subcommittee --Rep. J. J. Pickle of Texas -- would propose raising the age at which full social security benefits are paid from 65 to 68. Is it imaginable the general public would like that any better? Yet something has to give or the tax burden on young workers will become intolerable.
The question now is whether Congress will follow through on its promise of a bipartisan effort to find solutions -- and long-term rather than stop-gap solutions. Many proposals ought to weigh in the debate:
Social security benefits could be taxed, a move which would work to the benefit of low-income retirees. The Consumer Price Index, by which the cost-of-living adjustments are determined and which now overstates the impact of inflation on the elderly, could be revised. The whole program could be gradually shifted to a bona fide insurance system.
Whatever the formula of reform, the goal is a stable, solvent -- and equitable -- retirement system. Elderly Americans should be assured that they can count on reasonable benefits following a lifetime of work, and the American people as a whole should be willing to support a progressive program that is compassionate toward those least able to care for themselves in old age. This goal cannot be achieved without some sacrifice, however --and the politicians do the people a dis service by not confronting them with the facts.