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How a Grand Bargain on the Deficit Could Erode Social Security
Paul Ryan’s new budget blueprint released this week — details to follow, as usual — will only intensify the partisan warfare over the deficit. In truth, the deficit is just a cover story here, since the real debate is over the scope and role of government itself. Ryan at least is more upfront about it than most – he includes large new tax cuts as well as draconian spending reductions in what is ostensibly a plan to “balance the budget.” In his fervor to miniaturize Washington’s domestic role, however, he cannot provide the resources to maintain the core commitments of Social Security and Medicare.
The ideological core of this debate also explains why most of the proposals and agreements of the past year have paid so little heed to the needs of the economy. There is no doubt that the spending cuts and tax hikes of the last six months have weakened economic growth — and as a result, deficits actually could be larger over the longer-term than they otherwise would have been. The additional spending cuts contemplated for the next six months under the sequester — and under most of the grand bargains being floated to supersede the sequester — would inflict more damage. In this regard, Ryan stands at the extreme with a plan that would drive us back into recession.
Nonetheless, a major deal that includes entitlement reforms and tax-loophole closings remains possible. In the politics that could determine the relative weights of those two factors, Republicans will have less maneuvering room on taxes than Democrats will enjoy on entitlements. That’s because primary challengers from the far right already have taken down a number of conventional Republicans, heightening the GOP’s resistance to more revenues. By contrast, there have been no successful attacks so far on centrist Democrats for supporting the cutbacks in federal programs now in place. This political difference suggests that more of the burden in any grand bargain will likely fall on entitlements than on revenues. The next question is, what entitlement changes could Democrats accept and still preserve the essential missions of those programs.
Let’s consider Social Security and its core guarantee of basic economic security for more than 40 million retirees (plus nearly 9 million people with disabilities). Unfortunately for Ryan and his fellow supporters of austerity for the elderly and disabled, no change that would trim the benefits of all Social Security recipients is compatible with the program’s central mission. To begin, while countries such as Germany, France and Italy provide monthly pension checks equal on average to 75 percent or more of a person’s average monthly wages over a lifetime, this “replacement rate” for Social Security is only about 40 percent. That translates into an average monthly benefit of $1,230, or less than $15,000 per-year. Moreover, these bare benefits comprise at least 90 percent of the total income for more than one-third of all current Social Security recipients.
Let’s do the math. The terms just described translate into an annual income of less than $16,300, which amounts to a very bare minimum. After all, the average cost today of a small apartment (rent and utilities) is over $7,000 per-year. Even if elderly people pay 20 percent less than the average, their rent and utilities still claim an average of $5,600 per-year or nearly 40 percent of all their income. Add to that at least $335 per-month for food at a poverty level ($4,000 annually) and another $310 per-month for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums and other out-of-pocket medical expenses ($3,700 annually). That leaves tens of millions of elderly and disabled Americans with about $130 per-month ($1,600 per-year) to cover all other expenses such as clothes, transportation, recreation, state and local taxes, and any unexpected expenditures.
These data suggest that any across-the-board benefit cut today is incompatible with Social Security’s essential mission. That takes off-the-table changes in the annual inflation adjustment or the retirement age. Given current benefits, the only reforms consistent with the program’s central commitment are ones based on means-testing. For example, Congress could apply a smaller annual cost-of-living adjustment to the benefits of the top tier of retirees. And if Congress is set on guaranteeing the system’s solvency for the next 75 years, in the same spirit they should think about applying the payroll tax to the capital income of the top tier of workers. Not that there is an enormous rush, given the actuaries estimate that the system’s solvency is secure for at least another quarter-century.
Much like George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize part of Social Security, the 2013 Ryan budget is simply uninterested in the missions that animate federal entitlement programs. Democrats would commit a grave mistake, as a matter of both social policy and politics, if they also sacrificed those commitments in search of Republican acquiescence to more revenues.