Social Security and Medicare Solvency— Why It’s Time For A Contingency Plan

Social Security and Medicare Solvency— Why It’s Time For A Contingency Plan

By Mary Johnson

If you're preparing for a long sea journey and about to set sail in stormy waters would you knowingly board a ship without adequate lifeboats or an emergency plan?  Dumb question, I agree, but this is what the nation's retirees and Baby Boomers are getting ready to do, (albeit unwillingly).  The upcoming election will be one of the most important votes we ever make to determine the future of our Security and Medicare benefits.  But voters are headed to the polls with frustratingly few details about candidates’ plans.

Government and private economists are warning of major financial turmoil and another recession if Congress can't get their act together to address the rising level of federal debt that is estimated to equal 70 percent of our total national output by the end of the year.  Our nation's ability to pay the interest and its debt obligations has everything to do with our benefits.

The Social Security Trust Fund is the single largest holder of U.S. debt.  In the past, when more payroll taxes were received than required to pay benefits, the surplus was by law, used for other purposes.  The federal government accounted for borrowing the funds by issuing I.O.Us from the U.S. Treasury to Social Security or Medicare Trust Funds.  In recent years, the program’s financing reversed and now both Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds are paying out more in benefits than money coming in.  Both now rely on drawing down the interest and then the I.O.Us.  But when the rest of the federal budget is in deficit, the government must borrow to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits.  And according to a growing number of economists, those borrowing days are numbered.

Congress is under intense pressure from numerous directions to get rising debt under control.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) further warned that growing interest costs on the debt would restrict our elected lawmakers ability to use tax and spending policies to respond to economic downturns or financial crises.  And that in turn would increase the probably of a sudden fiscal crisis (like another recession), in which the government would lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates.

Sound like we're headed for a vicious cycle?  The sheer paralysis that lawmakers have contended with in responding to our current sluggish economy over the past two years is an early warning that we are nearing the edge.  Even so there are still some who brush off anxiety over Social Security's financing by saying "Social Security is an easy fix."

If that's so why hasn't anybody done it yet?  The options Congress has to address the debt are dwindling and the choices that are left are wrenching.

Higher taxes and reductions to benefits are expected to top the discussions of the next Congress. If we intend to protect our Social Security and Medicare benefits, it's going to be up to us to play a major role in crafting the solution.  We're out of time for partisan stand offs. This is not an "us versus them" situation.  This is a "we" as in "we are all in the same boat."  Please join TSCL in helping to be part of the solution.  To learn how you can take part click the links to: sign a petition, make a donation, or become a member of TSCL.