It has become accepted economic wisdom, uttered with deadpan certainty by policy pundits and budget scolds on both sides of the aisle, that the only way to get control over America’s looming deficits is to “reform entitlements.”
But the accepted wisdom is wrong.
Start with the statistics Republicans trot out at the slightest provocation — federal budget data showing a huge spike in direct payments to individuals since the start of 2009, shooting up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase.
And Census data showing 49 percent of Americans living in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing — up from 44 percent in 2008.
But these expenditures aren’t driving the federal budget deficit in future years. They’re temporary. The reason for the spike is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.
If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically, including 22 percent of our children.
What about Social Security and Medicare (along with Medicare’s poor step-child, Medicaid)?
Social Security won’t contribute to future budget deficits. By law, it can only spend money from the Social Security trust fund.
That fund has been in surplus for the better part of two decades, as boomers contributed to it during their working lives. As boomers begin to retire, those current surpluses are disappearing.
But this only means the trust fund will be collecting from the rest of the federal government the IOUs on the surpluses it lent to the rest of the government.
This still leaves a problem for the trust fund about two decades from now.
Yet the way to deal with this isn’t to raise the eligibility age for receiving Social Security benefits, as many entitlement reformers are urging. That would put an unfair burden on most laboring people, whose bodies begin wearing out about the same age they did decades ago even though they live longer.
And it’s not to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for inflation, as even the White House seemed ready to propose in recent months. Benefits are already meager for most recipients. The median income of Americans over 65 is less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of them depend on Social Security for more than half of this. The average Social Security benefit is less than $15,000 a year.
Besides, Social Security’s current inflation adjustment actually understates the true impact of inflation on elderly recipients — who spend far more than anyone else on health care, the costs of which have been rising faster than overall inflation.
That leaves two possibilities that “entitlement reformers” rarely if ever suggest, but are the only fair alternatives: raising the ceiling on income subject to Social Security taxes (in 2013 that ceiling is $113,700), and means-testing benefits so wealthy retirees receive less. Both should be considered.
What’s left to reform? Medicare and Medicaid costs are projected to soar. But here again, look closely and you’ll see neither is really the problem.
The underlying problem is the soaring costs of health care — as evidenced by soaring premiums, co-payments, and deductibles that all of us are bearing — combined with the aging of the boomer generation.
The solution isn’t to reduce Medicare benefits. It’s for the nation to contain overall healthcare costs and get more for its healthcare dollars.