That’s why young people have the most at stake in the presidential debate this year over very different visions for Social Security, an economic mainstay in the retirement haven of Florida where more than one in five residents get checks every month totaling $4.5 billion.
Some voters who fear that the popular program will disappear before they retire are attracted to Republican plans to allow them to invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds rather than put it all in the Social Security trust fund.
Others fear that “privatizing” Social Security would result in a roller-coaster ride on the stock market that would put their future at risk and undermine a lifeline that has kept millions out of poverty.
“The contrast is pretty clear on Social Security, so this is one issue that will influence my decision,” said Jad Khazem, 18, a pre-law student in Boca Raton who will vote for the first time in November. “As someone who lived with his late grandmother for years as a child, I know how important it is for seniors to retire with peace of mind. I’m a little uneasy about this privatization talk.”
He and many other voters favor raising the cap on the yearly income that is taxed for Social Security – currently limited to $110,100 – to bring in more revenue and help keep the system solvent. The Social Security tax is 12.4 percent of earnings, half paid by workers and half by employers. The maximum benefit this year is $2,513.
“I am more than willing to pay a little more money out of my paycheck to help someone else,” said Anna Eskamani, 22, a full-time worker at Planned Parenthood and part-time student in Orlando, whose family received Social Security survivor benefits while she was growing up. “That’s why this nation is so great, we support each other’s growth.”
Other proposals include raising the eligibility age for full benefits – which is already rising gradually to 67 — or limiting benefits to the wealthy.
But many young voters are wary of relying on a government program that is projected to run short of money by 2033.
“At the rate Social Security is going now, it won’t be there when I retire,” said Matt Hoopfer, 21, a student at Florida State University. “We can’t rely on the government to keep track of our money because they keep borrowing from Social Security, and now we’re almost out. I believe in private investing, I believe in individuals being able to do what they want with their money and getting their return on it.”
Voters have a clear choice between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who are pointing in opposite directions on Social Security.
Obama says mere “tweaks” would preserve the system, though he has not proposed a fix during more than three years in office.
“We will keep the promise of Social Security by taking the responsible steps to strengthen it, not by turning it over to Wall Street,” Obama said while accepting the Democratic nomination for re-election.
Romney has been somewhat more specific. He proposes to retain the current system for those 55 and older, lower the rate of cost-of-living increases for higher-income future recipients and gradually increase the eligibility age by another year or two.
Romney has embraced the concept of investment accounts under Social Security but has not spelled out a proposal. The Republican Party platform this year calls for an overhaul that would “allow younger workers the option of creating their own personal investment accounts as supplements to the system.”
Backers say that stocks simply out-perform Social Security over time, despite the occasional market crash, so why not tap them?
“Today’s young workers will have a very low rate of return on Social Security. For those now in their 20s, it would not even be the bond rate,” said Pam Villarreal, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “These little blips in the stock market are not a good comparison. If you have a personal account to supplement or replace Social Security, you are going to be in it for the long haul.”
But many voters were unnerved by the market crash of 2008, when the average 401(k) retirement-savings account plunged by 23 percent. Stocks have largely recovered since then. The S&P 500 stock index closed on Thursday at its highest level since Dec. 31, 2007. But those who cashed out after the crash suffered big losses.
“The stock market is great for other types of financial investment. But a system like Social Security, which has been stable for so many years, doesn’t need to be reinvented, it just needs to be adjusted,” said Carl Fowler, 60, an emergency-management trainer in Port Saint Lucie.
Experts for many years have said the system could be easily fixed for generations, but only if politicians had the will to make gradual adjustments to taxes and future benefits.
“We would have to put a crowbar in our wallets. Some people would have to pay more in taxes, and we might want to do some slight adjustments in payouts of benefits. But the pain would be easily absorbed and shared across the population,” said Marilyn Moon, a former Social Security trustee and now senior vice president at the American Institutes for Research.
“Nobody wants to deal with the fact that this will cause pain to solve, even if it’s fairly minor pain. We don’t have a lot of political courage in this area at this point.”