I recently came across a provocative proposal to mend Social Security that garnered almost no attention.
The fact that it didn’t receive attention is evidence that getting even mild changes through Congress is going to be difficult.
First, the idea: Yale Law School professor Anne L. Alstott says the Social Security retirement age should be raised to 76.
The comments on the article ranged from “typical liberal dribble,” and “no way it’s gonna sell,” to my favorite: “Why not make it 100 just to be sure?”
But that last commenter also noted that “65 was the age when the original designers of Social Security assumed that hardly anyone would make it to that age so that would not have to actually give much in benefits.”
There’s some truth to that statement. When Social Security was passed into law in 1935, the average lifespan was just a few years beyond the retirement age. Many people never collected a dime of Social Security.
Seniors, in general, had an awful standard of living and almost no means to improve it. Even ex-presidents were left destitute in old age due to the lack of a social safety net.
In 1848, Congress authorized a payment to Dolley Madison for her late husband James Madison’s papers. But the money was really meant to help her live her final days in comfort.
As first lady in 1814, Dolley Madison had rescued a famous painting of George Washington from the invading British. By the 1840s she was widowed but very much a popular national figure with Americans.
Decades later, Congress again attempted to bail out a destitute President Ulysses S. Grant.
However, it took until the Great Depression before momentum coalesced to improve the quality of life for seniors in retirement.
Social Security might be the same, but Americans have changed a lot since 1935. The average American might collect checks for 25 years. Someday, the money is going to run out.
I made my own modest proposal in this space some weeks back to hike the full retirement age two years to 69. It could be done over 22 years, much like the only previous change was done in 1983.
I was thinking in terms of what could possibly get done politically. Alstott is thinking way bigger.
“What has largely escaped notice is that the hard-core inequality that has divided America is also undermining our nation’s proudest experiment in equality -- the Social Security retirement system,” she says.
To return that system to fairness, Alstott argued that a number of reforms are necessary.
Social Security should be made fairer for low wage earners, who often are forced to retire earlier because of health reasons, Alstott said. Spousal benefits should be eliminated since most women now work and have their own benefits.
Perhaps the winner of this election should bring a proposal to the table. After all, it makes sense to tackle the unpopular stuff early in the term. People might forget about it by 2020. Of course, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have vowed not to touch Social Security benefits.
What do you think?
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at [email protected].
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