The social security system works like a giant checking account. Money comes in from worker's payroll taxes, and goes out as benefit checks to retirees. But the account's reserves are dwindling dangerously, says social security commissioner John A. Svahn, as the system spends $17,000 a minute more than it takes in.
''Social security has to be brought back into balance,'' he says. ''We have to do that in order to restore the public's confidence in the system. Either we are going to pay an awful lot more in taxes, or we have to expect to receive a little less in benefits out there in the future.''
Svahn stresses that the checks received by current beneficiaries are sacrosanct. But he says that if social security is to be a ''national retirement system'' - guaranteeing that workers won't face a step-down in living standard when they retire - some ''real serious changes'' must be made.
''I'm not sure we can afford those kind of changes,'' he says.
In the late '60s, Svahn served as California's director of social welfare under then-governor Ronald Reagan. When Reagan ascended to the presidency, he tapped his old colleague for the top Social Security post.
When settling into the job, says Svahn, one thing that amazed him was the public's lack of knowledge about the system. But social security's troubles have changed all that.
''If there has been anything beneficial that has come out of the past year's acrimonious debate about the system,'' he says, ''it is that the American public has a better understanding about what the system is, what it was intended to be, and what the problems are in the future.''
The commissioner declines to name a package of Social Security reforms he would prefer.
''Our position is that all the options are out there, and its a matter of choosing a combination of those options that can be agreed on,'' he says. ''Basically, it's a political problem. The trouble for politicians is that there is no easy answer.''