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Experts says Social Security is even closer to insolvency than we thought


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It was the most audacious demand I had ever heard from a disgruntled customer anywhere.

There he was at the customer service desk asking for his money back on a full set of tires that he thought had worn out too fast. “That’s OK,” the clerk said, without an ounce of condescension. “Our store has never, ever, carried that brand of tire. But if you’re unhappy about this, we’ll give you a full replacement at no cost. Of course.”

It’s not usually that easy. Even when you know that the service you’ve received has been horrible—or perhaps even nonexistent—or that the product you’re complaining about is deficient in every manner conceivable, even then you choose your strategy thoughtfully and rehearse your words carefully. Having lost Round 1, why throw the contest away by doing something dumb?

I’ve been thinking about all this because of the likely record-breaking crowds a few short years from now at customer service desks at your local office of the Social Security Administration. The dismay will come due and erupt when citizens begin discovering that the monthly Social Security support they’ve enjoyed since retirement is coming in smaller and smaller amounts.

The new threats come at a time when a wave of baby boomers is retiring.

Rumors of such budget-busting realities in Social Security’s basic structure have been around for years. But unexpected new phenomena like the COVID-19 pandemic mean that millions of people who had been working, earning wages, and contributing their share of Social Security support became unemployed.

Those and other new alarms have gone off in recent weeks. Warnings have come from more typically liberal sources like The New York Times, Barron’s financial newsletter, and CNN. The Times, for example, noted that “the actuaries were forced to make assumptions about how long COVID-19 would continue to produce unusual patterns of hospitalizations and deaths.” And it was compelled to ask: Would these new patterns bring about long-term disabilities among survivors?

But no one among the analysts seemed ready to challenge the stark report that Social Security revenues will be lower for the next decade than had been anticipated. The new threats come at a time when a wave of baby boomers is retiring. All of them, because of their age, face especially uncertain futures stemming from the unpredictable variations of the coronavirus surge.

The recent reports, primarily from the federal government itself, focused on the solvency of various federal agencies. The questions seem to start with identifying just when the grim “tipping point” comes—when Social Security trust funds go empty and annual expenditures exceed revenues. A rough compilation of the major reports anticipates that to happen sometime in 2034, which is one year sooner than most experts had predicted earlier.

It is that fluid and unsteady nature of the “tipping point” that most bothers many observers. “If the nature of my work,” said one Wall Street analyst writing for his client newsletter, “is to help my clients make thoughtful choices for the future, and if 90 percent of the data they’ve been given is slippery and subject to annual revision—or maybe even monthly revision—why would we expect them not to raise the roof when judgment day comes?”

“Raising the roof” is what people typically do at the customer service desk. And it’s not hard to imagine that the crowd at that desk will be both immense and boisterous when folks begin facing the fact that a significant chunk of the savings they’ve been counting on simply isn’t there.

It won’t be a pretty event.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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mrbobmac

For most of my career in accounting (30+ years), I have heard the frightening alarm bells that "Social Security will be insolvent by the time I retire" [whenever that may be for the speaker]. This tends to generate a bit of fear and hopelessness at the moment. I try to suggest—gently—that there are two things we should keep in mind:
1. Our reliance should never be in government in the first place. Yes, those who pay into Social Security should expect that its promises are fulfilled, regardless of how vague they will be decades in the future. But that does not relieve us from proper planning: "The prudent sees danger and hides himself..." (Proverbs 27:12). In other words, the proper planning and saving and avoiding debt and cultivating a variety of harvest fields (Ecclesiastes 11:2).
2. The thought that the Social Security system will fail and leave us out in the cold likens the U.S. Federal Government to a corporation that promised a pension, then evaporated penniless just as workers reached retirement (a too common example, especially in the 80's & 90's). But I believe that instead, these failures caused by poor planning (exaggerating X number of workers for Y number of retirees) and excessive benefit growth (expanding the pool of benefits and beneficiaries) will eventually lead to greater and greater socialization of the economy. To fulfill its obligations, the government can simply further nationalize segments of society.

So I am not afraid of the failure of the Social Security system in itself. I am actually more afraid of the decisions leading up to it, and the longer-term, somewhat irreversible results.