Washington has done a good job, as the president said recently, of kicking the can of Social Security down the road. The crisis point, the time at which the trust fund will be depleted, is predicted to come in 2037. The program will begin paying out more than it brings in, however, in 2016.
But the way Congress chooses to deal with a much smaller problem this year — a projected zero percent increase in Social Security payments — will go a long way toward portending how it eventually deals with the larger crisis later on.
A former Democratic congresswoman who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare told The Associated Press she wants Congress to increase benefits anyway, even though Social Security's own rules peg those increases to the inflation rate, which has been negative this year. Other groups, including AARP, are sounding a similar note. Even though inflation has been nonexistent for housing, food and other essentials, health-care costs continue to rise, they note. Also, many seniors are suffering because home values and stock portfolios have lost value.
All of those things are true, but the much larger question is whether the nation's elected officials can learn how to say no, even to people with needs who vote. If they can't do it now, only a few months after Social Security recipients received a 5.8 percent increase in benefits, they aren't likely to find reasonable solutions to a much larger crisis looming just down the road, when the money runs out.
Actually, there are few real options to this or any other Social Security or Medicare crisis, short of completely redefining the programs. The government can reduce benefits or raise taxes. Raising taxes hurts every working American, many of whom also have real needs. Government could simply re-prioritize its spending, but that would mean favoring senior citizens over defense, transportation and other programs, including (dare we say it?) health-care reform. The idea of simply increasing budget deficits — borrowing money — to solve the problem is becoming less and less likely as deficits balloon.
It may seem cruel to say it, especially during a deep recession that has hurt retirement savings, but Americans need to get used to the idea of funding their own retirements. Social Security and Medicare combined are expected to consume 40 percent of federal spending by 2019. There is no healthy way to fix the problem and provide everything to all people.
This year's lack of an increase in benefits should stand as a reminder of that and as a preview of what is to come.