Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did something most politicians shy away from completely: He suggested reforming the Social Security program in a sensible way.
Rubio noted that “anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.” Medicare is projected to exhaust its hospital trust fund by 2026 and Social Security’s trust fund exhaustion follows by 2033, if not sooner.
Despite the obvious problems, there is a strong “Don’t-Touch-My-Entitlements” camp working to thwart reform. This side’s approach: Do nothing — unless it is to making benefits more generous. If tax increases, particularly on wealthier Americans, were up for discussion, they would quickly come to the table.
Time is on their side. If history is any lesson, waiting until the very last moment to ward off sweeping across-the-board cuts—which is what would happen absent congressional action when the trust fund is exhausted—practically assures a tax increase on some, if not all, Americans.
This is why Rubio’s efforts are so important. Only by acting now can Congress prevent massive benefit cuts for all seniors and excessive taxes on younger people.
Rubio proposed several key reforms to the nation’s largest spending program:
- Eliminate the Social Security payroll tax for working Americans who reach the full retirement age. Americans who have accumulated 35 years of Social Security earnings and who reach the full retirement age — and continue working — receive very little in return for their additional payroll tax payments. A 2009 study by Andrew Biggs, David Weaver and Gayle Reznik identified that near-retirees receive a mere 2.5 cents in extra lifetime benefits for every dollar in additional payroll taxes paid. This low return discourages work among affected Americans who often choose to retire too soon. One way to help raise labor force participation among older workers, delivering extra benefits to them and society, would be to eliminate their payroll tax burden.
- Eliminate the retirement earnings test. The retirement earnings test, which applies to individuals who draw Social Security benefits between the early and full retirement ages, is confusing to many people who think of it as a 50 percent tax on their earnings above a certain limit. Few people recognize that their benefits are adjusted upwards once they do reach their full retirement age, and the earnings test is eliminated. To avoid this confusion and encourage older Americans to continue working, the earnings test should be eliminated.
- Raise the Social Security retirement age for younger workers. This is an area were Rubio should go further. While raising the retirement age entails large savings for taxpayers and Social Security, grandfathering those Americans who are 55 and older means that those benefits are vastly delayed. Americans live and draw benefits for much longer than ever before. Social Security’s full retirement age should at least be increased to 68 by 2024, and the early retirement age should grow to 65 by 2032, and then both should be indexed to changes in longevity, so that Social Security’s eligibility age keeps pace with future life expectancy.
- Strengthen benefits for the most vulnerable by slowing the growth in benefits for upper-income retirees. This proposal heads in the right direction, but Rubio should go even further by making Social Security into real insurance that protects against poverty in old age. The Heritage Foundation has proposed a flat benefit level well above the federal poverty limit that would phase out at very high levels of income. This reform would give Americans certainty about what they can expect from Social Security, and together with reforms to facilitate greater personal savings, would allow more Americans to provide a greater portion of their income in retirement through their own efforts.
It has been more than 30 years since the last time Congress adjusted benefits. For Social Security to be able to provide protection against poverty in old age without putting an undue and economically harmful burden on younger generations, it needs reforms now. Rubio’s efforts to lead on this issue are an important contribution.