AS a young concerned voter, I've been troubled that, according to government projections, Social Security is scheduled to become insolvent early in the next century. I was relieved to see the reform of Social Security recently join the top issues on the national agenda. But I relaxed too soon; the campaign debate over Social Security lacks substance.
I decided to compare the presidential candidates on this issue. Repeatedly, I contacted the campaign headquarters of all of the presidential candidates and requested they send me their positions on, and proposals for, Social Security and other entitlement programs. At that point, the leading contenders for our highest office were President Clinton, Sen. Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes. Not one had a specific proposal for heading off this entitlement-program disaster.
Of the four, only Mr. Clinton bothered to respond to my inquiry, and he with rhetoric. Clinton states, "...adjustments should be made in the same way we have done in the past: through serious, bipartisan efforts that put politics to the side and allow all parties to focus on the long-term changes that best preserve the viability of the Trust Fund for generations to come." At least he responded.
I learned of the other candidates' positions by scouring the newspapers. Senator Dole told a young man who feared that the Social Security system would run out of money before he retired, "Well, I heard that a long time ago, and we fixed Social Security in 1983." Dole now says he opposes any future benefit cuts or tax hikes.
Mr. Forbes was touting the privatization of Social Security for young adults, though he admitted that he hadn't worked out the details. And Mr. Buchanan merely promises that he will never raise payroll taxes.
Unfortunately, the crux of the Social Security crisis is not being addressed. Since the initiation of Social Security, America's demographics have changed greatly. We are a larger nation, we live longer, and the ratio of workers to pensioners has decreased significantly. In 1950 there were 16 workers paying taxes for every retiree collecting benefits. Now there are three. And as the baby boomers leave the work force, that number will drop to two - an impossible burden at the current rate of tax and benefits.
Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system - each year's benefits are paid out of taxes collected from workers that year. Currently, the system is running a surplus. Investing the surplus in Treasury bonds allows the federal government to borrow that money to finance other projects. When the surplus expires in about 20 years, however, and the bonds are redeemed, the government will have to dramatically raise taxes, slash nonpension spending, and borrow money from the general public in order to pay, all of which will greatly increase interest rates and inflationary pressure. Hence, the upcoming bankruptcy of the Social Security system.
But there is hope. The Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform produced a number of credible options for reforming the Social Security system, such as raising the retirement age, reducing cost-of-living increases, and allowing workers to invest some of their FICA contributions privately. And recently, a federal advisory panel announced plans to recommend investing a portion of payroll contributions in the stock market.
Unfortunately, no presidential candidate has yet been willing to tackle this issue. Equally daunting is the difficulty of obtaining important political information. After more than two weeks of repeated calling and requests, and after lengthy interrogations by campaign staffs regarding the information I wanted, only one politician bothered to respond to me. As a last resort, I took a lengthy cruise around the candidates' Web pages (sites on the Internet's World Wide Web), but found mostly pretty designs and colors - and little information. The candidates are willing to ask for my vote, but apparently they are not willing to give me information in exchange.
Tinkering will no longer be a solution - the Social Security system needs a complete overhaul. We can't cut benefits low enough or raise taxes high enough to prevent a complete collapse of the system. The solution must come from the candidates running in the 1996 election. If it doesn't, the American public will be paying the price for years to come.