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The time for entitlement reform is now

We must restructure old-age programs if we want to save them

Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed from the U.S. Treasury. Associated Press/Photo by Bradly C. Bower

The time for entitlement reform is now
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Let’s revisit the “debt ceiling crisis.” President Biden signed a spending deal into law, averting a potential crisis and pushing back debt-ceiling disputes until 2025. The measure, promoted as a result of “compromise and consensus” across the political parties, has some merits even as it continues the federal government’s business-as-usual approach to deficits and debts.

But now that the gamesmanship of debt-ceiling battles has been postponed until after the next presidential election, it is time to have a measured and mature conversation about the need for entitlement reform.

Entitlements, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, now make up about half of total spending by the federal government. In 2022, somewhere between 46 and 48 percent of outlays went to entitlement programs, and most of this spending goes to seniors. Social Security represents the single biggest category of spending in the federal budget, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all spending.

For the most part the budgetary fights in Congress focus on non-entitlement discretionary spending, which is less than half of what the federal government spends each year. Serious discussions about reform of entitlement programs are typically off the agenda in these periodic squabbles, which focus on solutions that are politically viable in the short term. In practice this has meant that the government continues to spend more and more, as each side buys off the other with projects or demands that can be touted as victories even as the fundamental direction of government largesse remains unchecked.

This dynamic, which we’ve seen play out periodically in debt-ceiling discussions over the past decade, is unsuited to the kinds of serious discussions about intergenerational justice and responsibilities that are at play when considering entitlement programs. No one wants to see the elderly and the retired citizens of the United States destitute or impoverished as a result of political irresponsibility. But not taking action to make these entitlement programs sustainable over time actually endangers them in the longer term.

We cannot expect problems that have taken years and decades to become visible to be solved overnight or in the course of high-stakes debt-ceiling negotiations.

The choices before us really are to reform these programs and their funding architecture or risk their outright collapse. Without necessary reforms, entitlements must either collapse or grow to such an extent that the federal government simply becomes an agency for paying out entitlements and servicing the federal debt each year.

A cornerstone commitment of any reform of entitlements must be that what has been promised has to be delivered to those in retirement or close to it. Any structural changes need to be implemented in a graduated fashion over time, so that earlier cohorts of future retirees can have the time and confidence in the system to make changes in their own planning. Those younger generations can then have the security to know that their contributions are actually going to something that is sustainable and will offer them security as they age, rather than the cynicism that such programs have bred over the last generation or so.

So promises that have been made need to be kept. But promises once made in a particular context to one generation or cohort of American citizens do not have to be identical for everyone in the future. There are ways of instituting changes to the schedule of benefits and outlays that will allow people who are still in the workforce and have decades to go before current retirement ages to adapt their lives and the decisions they make for the good of themselves and their families.

Reforming entitlements is a generational task. We cannot expect problems that have taken years and decades to become visible to be solved overnight or in the course of high-stakes debt-ceiling negotiations. Now that the latest spending measure has passed, America’s politicians have bought some time. But that margin should be used to engage in a longer term, substantive discussion about how to justly amend the structures of American entitlement spending so that those now alive can flourish and prosper without mortgaging the opportunities for future generations to do so as well.

Now is a time for statesmanship rather than brinkmanship and partisanship. The demographic changes that are already apparent in an aging citizenry demand that our political leaders fulfill their duty to the American people, not just their special interests and narrow constituencies. As the Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper once put it when examining the social and political challenges of his own day, “Government will have to learn again what it is to govern, something it has forgotten these many years.” It had better learn fast.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.

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