U.S. Social Security system under increasing pressure

18:18, August 10, 2010      

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Early retirement by those retrenched during the recession is pressuring the capacity of the U.S. Social Security system to ensure financial security for older Americans.

Americans can apply for monthly Social Security benefits when they reach the full retirement age of 66, raised from 65 last year. People can also choose to take reduced Social Security benefits before they reach full retirement age.

Statistics show that 2.74 million Americans filed for Social Security in 2009, more than any year in history, and there was a marked increase in the number retiring early and receiving reduced benefits.

Nearly 72 percent of men who filed opted for early benefits in 2009, up from 58 percent the previous year. More women also filed, which was 74.7 percent in 2009 compared with 64.2 percent the previous year.

According to the annual report of the Social Security program released last week, the trustees said that pension and disability payments would exceed revenues of this year and 2011, reflecting the deep recession.

The report says the program would return to the black in 2012-2014, but that benefit payments would again exceed tax collections in 2015. For every year after 2015, the report projects that Social Security will be paying out more than it receives in tax collections as 78 million baby boomers begin retiring.

Americans entitled to full Social Security benefits at 66 would receive 75 percent of their check if they began collecting four years early. Conversely, if they waited until they turned 70, collecting four years late, they would earn 32 percent more. That means they would receive the decreased, or increased percentages for the rest of their life.

The trustees did not focus on the growth of early retirees in their report, as they don't expect the early retirees to significantly drain funds over the long term. Early opt-ins receive smaller monthly checks so they are not projected to receive any more money over a lifetime than they would if they had waited to collect Social Security until their full retirement age.

The U.S. Social Security legislation was passed in 1935. Its intent was to provide the scaffolding for a vital, agile system that would change with the times, but would, at all times, provide a stable, substantial measure of economic security for Americans: not just old age insurance, but retirement pensions for workers and widows, support for women and children who had none, unemployed industry workers and domestics.

The U.S. Social Security system changed with the economy and the work force. A 1996 Congressional Research Service report detailed 28 major changes to the program, amendments that by and large expanded eligibility, established new programs and raised the level and range of benefits.

However, this vision of adaptability has faded in recent decades in the United States. Old age insurance is now so untouchable that it has become synonymous with the "third rail of American politics."

Unemployment insurance is under-funded by states struggling to balance their own books at the same time as their residents need help with theirs. Welfare has not been a federal entitlement since the 1990s and the jobs program intended to complement this support disappeared in the 1940s, according to press reports.

Social Security becomes even more important since 54 percent of Americans have no private pension. That has added more burden to the Social Security system.

There are several proposals for using the Social Security system to create universal, mandatory individual retirement accounts to which employers and workers would contribute, and from which retirees would draw annuities. However, those proposals take time to become reality.

Another problem is that Americans today enjoy more years of active life. In 1935, the additional life expectancy of a 65 year old was 12.5 years. Today it is 18 years. That means Social Security will have to provide 5.5 years more benefits for each American.

Statistics show that 51 million Americans received Social Security benefits in 2008 and virtually all workers, 162 million of them, are covered by it. It takes in 805 billion dollars in annual revenue, distributes 615 billion dollars in benefits, manages assets of 2.4 trillion dollars and does so with an administrative charge.

A recent poll conducted for the National Academy of Social Insurance and The Rockefeller Foundation found that 77 percent of respondents believed workers should increase their contributions to the system if that is what is needed to maintain benefit levels. Americans are confident in this institution and are willing to pay higher taxes to support it.

Source: Xinhua


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