Proposals to change the Social Security system are fast taking shape, and many of them call for substantial benefit cuts for young workers. While a handful of journalists have discussed these “tweaks,” as the president calls them, there has been little discussion about how such changes will fit into the total picture of retirement income for most Americans. And there’s been little talk about the huge gulf between what the public wants and what Washington favors.
I sat down with Social Security expert Alicia Munnell, who heads the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Munnell has a lot to say, but her words have largely been absent from this year’s reportage, which has been characterized by he said/she said commentary from a narrow range of voices. Munnell’s comments point not to a deficit crisis but, she argues, to a looming crisis in the adequacy of retirement income that must be considered in the context of any changes to the system. This is the second in a series of conversations with experts on Social Security and retirement income.
Trudy Lieberman: Should Social Security be part of the push for deficit reduction?
Alicia Munnell: Social Security can’t be a big part of deficit reduction because it doesn’t have a big deficit. Whereas a combination of cuts and taxes sounds so fair, in this case it’s not appropriate, because they would be part of the retirement income system that already is going to produce inadequate income for most Americans. To further cut back doesn’t make sense.
TL: Why are some people pushing an increase in the retirement age?
AM: This solution has always arisen when there’s talk of closing the financing gap. It’s a way to cut benefits that sounds like it’s not a benefit cut. But if people have to wait longer to receive their full benefits, they will get less over the rest of their lives. And people who take their benefits early will also receive lower monthly benefits. As you move the age further out, the benefits for those taking them early drop [see table] substantially. Doing this does help close the gap between benefits and existing revenue, and so it seems reasonable to many.
TL: Don’t people have to wait longer now to collect full benefits?
AM: Yes, many people don’t know that the age for receiving full benefits has gone from sixty-five to sixty-six, and will be increasing to sixty-seven for those born after 1959. Many people still think the age is sixty-five, and they are not factoring that into their thinking. Increases are already in play.
TL: Is it reasonable to expect people wait until age seventy, as some suggest, to collect full benefits?
AM: While people in general are healthier than they once were, for many of them working longer is an impossibility. They have health problems, or a spouse does. Their work skills may be antiquated, or they live in areas of high unemployment.
TL: How many people are in this category?
AM: About twenty-five percent of the population.
TL: But more people than that take their benefits early. Why?
AM: About half of all beneficiaries take their benefits at age sixty-two. It’s part of the culture. Social Security field offices try to be helpful, and in doing that they tell people they can take their benefits early. The fact there’s a deficit in the program also encourages some to take them early. They feel they should get them while the getting is good.
TL: But there are downsides, aren’t there?
AM: Yes. Those taking the benefit early may not have too much trouble financially while they are still in their sixties, but by the time they are in their seventies and eighties, they will have used up other assets. Too many people will depend solely on Social Security, and they will find their monthly benefit inadequate.
TL: Does that argue for staying in the workforce longer if you can?
AM: I am sympathetic to the notion that people who can work should work as long as they can. Under current law, a monthly benefit taken, say at age seventy, is seventy-five percent larger than it would be at age sixty-two.