USA Today: Social Security isn’t the problem

(Originally published 2/21/2011)

Jacob Lew

By Jacob Lew, President Obama’s Chief of Staff | USA Today:

The budget put forward by President Obama last week is a blueprint for how we can live within our means and win the future. As this begins the budgeting process in Washington, we need to be clear about the causes of the pressing fiscal problems we face. Specifically, looking to the next two decades, Social Security does not cause our deficits.

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

For years, the surpluses in the Social Security trust fund have helped to mask our deficits elsewhere. Now that we are paying Social Security back, the problem is not with Social Security, but with the rest of the budget. In 2001 and 2003, Washington cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and later expanded Medicare without paying for it. Blaming Social Security for our fiscal woes is like blaming you for not saving enough in your checking account because the bank lost all depositors’ money.

The problem is not Social Security; the problem is the mismatch between outlays and revenues in the rest of the budget. Closing that gap and paying down our debt will take tough choices, and the president’s budget makes them. Strengthening Social Security is an important, but parallel, issue that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. But let’s not confuse it as either the cause of or a solution to our short-term fiscal problems.

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