The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 28, 2012

No support for cutting Social Security benefits

As Republicans and Democrats gather this week and next at their respective national conventions, hanging over their heads is a different kind of hurricane. The largest federal program in the United States — Social Security — could become a Category 5 catastrophe unless changes are made.

But what changes?

And who pays?

As millions of baby boomers reach retirement, the burden on Social Security grows. About 56 million people get benefits today, and that is projected to grow to 91 million in 2035. That has changed the calculus of the program. In 1950, in the early years of the baby boom, there were 16 workers for each retiree, spreading the tax burden out. It’s now 3.3 workers per retiree, and that is expected to drop to two workers per retiree by 2025.

For nearly three decades, workers generated Social Security surpluses, providing more in tax revenue than the system paid in benefits to retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children. Social Security’s surplus, now valued at $2.7 trillion, is projected to be gone in 2033. At that point, Social Security would collect enough tax revenue each year to pay only about 75 percent of benefits. Once Social Security’s surplus is gone, the program is projected to pay out $134 trillion more in benefits than it will collect in taxes over the next 75 years, according to data from the Social Security Administration.

Options for extending the life of Social Security include imposing the payroll tax on higher incomes, raising taxes on all workers, cutting benefits to retirees, raising the retirement age, or some combination of those elements.

Paul Zagorski, a political science professor at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, said that for both political parties, the real conventions aren’t the ones on television this week and next, but take place when political leaders meet with their big donors — off-camera and unreported.

“Everything else is just infomercial,” he said.

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