There’s a certain irony to the message that Social Security must be trimmed to save it for future generations. Many experts believe that future generations will need Social Security more than ever, since other sources of retirement income, like good defined benefit plans, have disappeared and 401(k) arrangements provide an inadequate retirement for most people. The Boston-based Center for Retirement Research, a respected organization for retirement studies, found that more than half of today’s households will not have enough retirement income to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.

Cutting Social Security benefits now will give the future beneficiaries even less to live on. As Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, told The New York Times. “We’re setting ourselves up for somewhere, 10 years down the road, when a lot of retirees who didn’t expect to live in poverty are going to be in poverty.”

Where could the press be really useful? Take a good, hard look at retirement income—in light of the demise of good pension plans, inadequate 401(k) and personal savings, as well as rising medical expenses, which are likely to grow if Obama’s plans for changing Medicare become law and seniors are required to put more “skin in the game,” as the phrase goes. Those changes would require seniors to pay higher premiums and a greater share of their medical bills.

Lind uses his Salon essay to try to start that longer look. He and his colleagues have written a new paper called “Expanding Social Security: A Plan To Increase Retirement Security for All Americans” (Summary with link here).

The paper calls for a two-part plan: Social Security A would be the current Social Security retirement program, fully funded; on top of that would be another layer, Social Security B, a universal flat benefit. Lind argues that under his proposal, low wage earners would be the biggest winners, because nearly 100 percent of their pre-retirement income could be replaced from public funding in the new system. The current program replaces about 60 percent of pre-retirement income for low-wage workers and about 42 percent for an average-wage worker. Under Lind’s proposal, he says, the funding of Social Security would be “far more progressive than today’s system.” Some experts have long criticized the payroll tax, which funds the program today, as too regressive, since the burden of paying the tax falls heavily on those with the lowest incomes.

Lind is a realist. He writes “in today’s money-soaked Washington, the chances that our Expanded Social Security plan will be enacted are slim to none.” But, he adds, the purpose of putting the idea out there is to try to move the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable to talk about.

His piece should be essential reading for anyone interested in looking beyond the fences erected by some members of the media, and by media sources whose goal is to cut Social Security (and Medicare) benefits without looking at the looming crisis in retirement income.


CJR’s United States Project covers the coverage of politics and policy. Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And follow @Trudy_Lieberman.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.