Washington Thinks Entitlements Are the Problem. Maybe They're the Answer.

April 5, 2013 | | Wonkblog |

Washington frets endlessly over the problems that Social Security and Medicare, both of which are projected to exhaust their trust funds in the coming decades, might cause the budget. But two new reports underscore the serious problems they might solve for the country.

Take Social Security. For years, pension experts have spoken of the “three-legged stool” of retirement savings: Social Security, employer pensions and private savings. In recent years, however, that stool has begun to wobble, and today, Social Security is basically the only leg holding it up.

This is the other, perhaps more pressing, Social Security crisis: It’s not generous enough to counteract the sorry state of retirement savings nationwide. In a report for the New American Foundation, Michael Lind, Steven Hill, Robert Hiltonsmith and Joshua Holland survey this data and conclude that the ongoing debate over how to cut Social Security is all wrong: We need to make Social Security much more generous.

They would keep today’s income-based Social Security program, but add a “Part B,” which would be a flat payout to all retirees. When parts A and B are combined, all retirees would be guaranteed 60 percent of their average working wage in retirement, with low earners seeing closer to 100 percent replacement. Part B would be pricey, adding almost a trillion dollars to Social Security’s costs in 2037, and the authors don’t have a clear proposal, much less a politically realistic plan, for how to pay for it. But not paying for it doesn’t mean those costs disappear: It either means living standards for seniors will tumble, or families will strain as they try to support older relatives.