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Putting Your Head in the Sand Rarely Solves a Problem — Especially One That Matters So Much to So Many

1140-take-a-stand-social-security-white-houseIn the annals of good advice for dealing with a problem or challenge, “put your head in the sand,” “kick the can down the road” and “ignore it and maybe it will go away” generally do not rate very highly.

Yet, that’s kind of what’s being done about the fiscal challenges faced by Social Security — we’re seemingly ignoring them in the hope they will go away.

For about the next decade and a half, the Social Security system is in perfectly fine financial shape — and that’s great. It’s the part afterward, the part a little over 15 years from now, that’s not so great. Picture a cliff.

Here are the facts: After 2033, Social Security’s payables will surpass its receivables, i.e., there will be more going out (in terms of benefit checks to Social Security recipients) than there will be coming in (from the 6.17 percent deducted from employees’ paychecks). You can see where this is headed.

Were we to do nothing, every single Social Security recipient, of whom there would likely be about 70 million, would receive an across-the-board benefits cut of more than 20 percent. It’s simple math.

Saying a lot of people will have a lot of skin in the game seems an apt if somewhat glib metaphor, except Social Security, a cornerstone of American life for more than 80 years, is not a game. For millions of people, it’s a lifeline.

About 1 in 3 elderly Social Security recipients relies on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income and, on average, more than half rely on it for 50 percent or more of their income.

So this issue is not merely about the solvency of Social Security, it’s about adequacy, too. Put it this way, people who rely on Social Security to survive are usually doing just about that — surviving, getting by.

But wait, don’t cost-of-living adjustments help? Unfortunately, not so much. This year’s COLA for recipients is less than one-half of 1 percent — better than nothing, which is what they got last year, but not much different. Meanwhile, prescription drug prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health care costs increase.

About a year ago, AARP launched our Take a Stand campaign, which has been focused on elevating Social Security as an important issue in the 2016 presidential race. The campaign’s goal has been to press all candidates to let voters know how, if elected, they would go about keeping Social Security solvent and adequate for future generations. We’ve made some progress, but this is an issue candidates love to dodge or gloss over — probably because so many people are affected by it. Right now it’s more than 230 million individuals — 60 million recipients and 170-plus million paying into the system with every paycheck as future recipients.

This Wednesday night marks the third and final presidential debate of the 2016 campaign and the last chance (prior to the Nov. 8 election) for voters to get a sense of how, or perhaps “if” is a better word, the two major candidates would go about keeping Social Security strong and adequate. As we’ve said before, candidates saying they are “committed” to Social Security does not constitute a plan for keeping it strong, nor does saying that they think it’s important. We all do.

How a person, an institution or a nation deals with a problem says a lot about the entity in question — and, surely, getting engaged on an issue sooner is nearly always better than later or, indeed, putting your head in the sand — no matter how easy it may be to do.