Don't Cut Social Security—Double It

Fiscal cliff chatter about slashing the venerable program ignores its fundamental potential and underlying strength.

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Robert Galbraith/Reuters

As the nation tiptoes closer to the fiscal cliff, a frightening number of leaders on both sides of the political aisle seem ready to push poor, beleaguered Social Security over the edge. Not only would that be a huge mistake for the nation's future, but these leaders show a dreadful misunderstanding of the new challenges faced by the U.S. retirement system. Particularly in the aftermath of the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression, none of the proposals on the table are grappling with some stark economic realities. How we settle this New Deal legacy will decide fundamental questions about what kind of society America will be for generations to come.

Here's the dilemma that the United States faces. Since World War II, individual retirement has been based on a "three-legged stool," with the three legs being Social Security, pensions, and personal savings (the latter primarily centered around home ownership). But two out of three of these legs have been chopped back to blunted pegs, leaving the retirement stool as an unstable, one-legged oddity.

Pensions have always been the least broadly distributed asset, with only a third of elderly Americans (those 65 and over) earning pension income, a percentage which has been declining dramatically in recent years. A bit over a majority of these older Americans have income from personal savings, most of that residing in the value of their homes. But 86 percent receive Social Security payments (see Figure 1).

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Even before the Great Recession, 40 percent of middle-income and 53 percent of lower-income Americans already were at risk of having insufficient retirement funds. But the economic collapse has taken its toll on two out of three of Americans' primary retirement resources: pensions and savings/investment in a home.

Already Off the Cliff: Pensions, Private and Public

American pensions were some of the hardest hit in the world by the Great Recession, falling in value by over a quarter in 2008, with only modest recovery since then. But private pensions already had become a less steady leg of retirement security prior to the recent recession. Since the early 1980s, businesses have gradually shifted responsibility for pensions onto workers, with predictable results. In 1981, approximately 60 percent of private sector workers were covered by a pension with a guaranteed payout. Today only about 10 percent of private sector workers have guaranteed payout pensions. Meanwhile, 401(k)-type retirement contribution plans have gone from covering only about 17 percent of the private workforce to about 65 percent today (see Figure 3).

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401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans have turned out to be an unreliable pillar of retirement security, not only because they don't provide as secure a net but because many Americans are pretty lousy at managing their investments. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than one-quarter of baby boomer households thought "hardly at all" about retirement and that financial literacy among boomers was "alarmingly low." Half could not do a simple math calculation (divide $2 million by five) and fewer than 20 percent could calculate compound interest.

In the public sector, most workers still are covered by guaranteed payout pensions, but the number of public sector workers has declined dramatically in recent years, accelerating as a result of the Great Recession. There are now a million fewer federal employees than when Ronald Reagan left office, and public sector employment is at a 30-year low.

In addition, states have funded only about 80 percent of their pension liability, leaving a $3.32 trillion funding gap. Ohio and Rhode Island are in the worst shape, having underfunded their pensions by almost 50 percent of their gross state product. Other liabilities, such as retiree health and dental insurance, also are underfunded. City governments similarly are plagued by underfunded pensions, with Los Angeles underfunding its public pension liabilities by $3.53 billion, with an additional $2.43 billion owed for other employment benefits such as healthcare. As of June 2009, New York City public pension programs had liabilities that exceeded their assets by $39.9 billion with an additional $65.5 billion owed for other benefits.

So both the private and public components of the U.S. pension system are under severe strain, as the Great Recession combined with pre-recession patterns of rising inequality and a diminishing social contract have taken their toll. With fewer workers covered by pensions, this leg of the three-legged stool of retirement security is too short -- and growing shorter.

Already Off the Cliff II: Home Ownership and Personal Savings

Now let's examine the second leg of retirement well-being, personal savings centered around homeownership. For tens of millions of Americans, security in their elderly years has been directly linked to the value of their homes. Yet the rupture of the housing bubble illustrated in dramatic fashion the danger of over-reliance upon ever-rising home values for retirement security.

The Federal Reserve has estimated that homeowners lost approximately $8 trillion in home equity during the Great Recession, a 53 percent drop in the overall value of the national homeownership stock. About 14 million Americans -- about 28 percent of all homeowners -- are still underwater today, owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth. These homeowners are, in effect, flat broke if they have no other accumulated savings or retirement vehicle (see Figure 6, which shows the percentage of mortgages that are underwater).

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This has been devastating for Americans' retirement well-being because home ownership accounts for a large proportion of assets for so much of the population. As of 2008, only the top two income quartiles had accumulated enough equity from financial assets and pensions to weather the bursting housing bubble. The bottom 50 percent had not saved enough outside their homeownership to avoid severe wreckage to their retirement plans.

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