Marc Goldwein, Senior Vice President and Senior Policy Director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) at the Academy’s Demystifying Social Security seminar for interns and young professionals in Washington, DC. Goldwein’s panel focused on equity issues in Social Security, including the burden younger generations will experience if the Social Security program is not restored to long-range financial stability before its Trust Fund runs out in 2034. Goldwein is passionate about the subject, and speaks to concerns about Social Security from both a personal and professional perspective.
In a quick interview (summarized below), Goldwein provides answers to questions current and future recipients of Social Security are asking.
Q: Will Social Security be there for the generation paying into it now?
Goldwein: Social Security now has a Trust Fund with reserves. However, we are spending more than we raise in revenue, so the reserves are being depleted. Our extra cushion will run out in roughly 16 years. When it does, the law says all benefits must be cut by 20% to 25% to match revenue. That’s a huge cut, especially if it’s done abruptly.
This isn’t just a problem for our grandkids, it a problem for our grandparents – and for all of us. Someone retiring today at age 62 will be 78 years old when the Trust Fund runs out of reserves; we can’t even guarantee full benefits to today’s retirees under current law. And the situation is even worse for younger folks. For example, I was born in 1984. Under current projections, Social Security is expected to exhaust its reserves when I’m 51 years old. That means my lifetime benefits – all the benefits I’m likely to receive in retirement, assuming I have average income and life expectancy – will be $130,000 lower than the program has promised. My 2-year old daughter stands to lose $245,000, and the trust fund will be depleted by the time she turns 18. We have a tool on our website that can show you how old you’ll be and what you stand to lose.
Q: We know Social Security solvency is important to recipients—whether seniors, young adults, or children—but does it have broader implications?
Goldwein: We have to understand that Social Security is a huge part of our economy. Social Security is the primary source of retirement income and the largest tax (the payroll tax) for most Americans; it’s also the single largest government program. Additionally, the Social Security system sends important signals to people about how much to save, how much to work, how to invest, and when to retire.
When the program is promising more in benefits than it is raising in revenue, it is by definition sending the wrong signals – and the result is a weaker overall economy.
Q: Does Social Security’s predicted shortfall result in slower economic growth?
Goldwein: In the coming years, most forecasters expect economic growth below 2 percent; historically it’s been above 3 percent. The main drive of this slower economic growth is an aging population, which means our workforce isn’t growing.
But the failure of our leaders to fix Social Security’s finances certainly isn’t helping. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that even the worst possible solvency solution – cutting all benefits across-the-board – would increase the size of the economy by 3 percent in 2050. Imagine how much larger the economy would be if we enacted a plan that also promoted savings and investment, encouraged people who are able to work longer, helped people with disabilities remain in the workforce, provided for a secure retirement, and gave people more certainty and confidence in their future benefits.
Q: Since most people will rely on Social Security income at some point, is there anything they can do to improve the situation?
Goldwein: The number one thing is to advocate for solutions, and quick solutions. A decent solution today is better than an otherwise good solution in 15 years because losing time is a big deal. It means we have no time to phase things in, no time to warn people on how they have to adjust, and no way of protecting current beneficiaries and middle class workers. And waiting longer literally increases the size of the adjustment we have to make – we’d have to raise taxes or reduce benefits 50 percent more if we start in 15 years as opposed to starting today. The longer we wait the fewer options we have.
There are a number of ways to fix the situation. Chairman of the Social Security Ways and Means Committee John Larson has a plan that would fix it all with taxes. Former Chairman Johnson had a plan that would solve it all with benefit changes. The folks at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) have a plan that would fix it with a combination. And we have an interactive tool on our website that lets anyone design their own Social Security reform plan. And when I say anyone, I mean it. Members of Congress have used this to design their plan, and so have high school students.
As you advocate for a solution, consider your values. What do you want Social Security reform to do? Enhance benefits for retirees? Make sure everyone has retirement security across the board? Focus on widows and widowers? Promote economic growth?
Identify your priorities in your solution and push for those priorities. Call your member of Congress, spend time talking to folks who are influencers, and push through to there being a solution. And be open to compromise.
But let me emphasize this again: Plan beats no plan. We need a solution fast – time is running out.
More about Marc Goldwein
Marc Goldwein is the Senior Vice President and Senior Policy Director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), where he guides and conducts research on a wide array of topics related to fiscal policy and the federal budget. Goldwein works regularly with Members of Congress and their staffs on budget-related issues. He has also led a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Solutions Initiative to solicit ideas for improving various aspects of the SSDI program.
In addition to his work at CRFB, Goldwein served as Associate Director of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (The Fiscal Commission), and was a senior budget analyst on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (The Super Committee). He has also conducted research for the Government Accountability Office, the World Bank, the Historian's Office at the Social Security Administration, and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.
Goldwein teaches economics at the University of California DC and at Johns Hopkins University, where he was the recipient of an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013. In 2011, Goldwein was featured in the Forbes "30 Under 30" list for Law & Policy. Goldwein was elected to the National Academy of Social Insurance in 2009, becoming the youngest Member at age 25. He completed the Academy’s Washington Internship on Social Insurance (now the Merton C. Bernstein Internship in Social Insurance) in 2007, and was placed at the Government Accountability Office (GAO).