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Op-Ed - Social Security: Preserve and Strengthen

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Op-Ed - Social Security: Preserve and Strengthen
By Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11)
February 14, 2005

"Now is the time to strengthen Social Security for the future We can and must accomplish this critical goal for the American people." These words of President Bill Clinton, spoken in 1999, are again echoing throughout our nation. Six years later, President George W. Bush is now challenging Congress and the nation to engage in a great debate on how to strengthen Social Security for future generations.

As we renew the debate Presidents Clinton and Bush encouraged, what the American people need now are facts. Unfortunately, many Americans remain apprehensive about their retirement security and Social Security. Indeed, they appear deeply confused about the very nature of this critically important program.

For example, a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post indicated that most Americans badly underestimate the share of the federal budget spent on Social Security, and most incorrectly believe that retirees, on average, receive less in benefits than they contribute to the system. Perhaps most significant, about seven in 10 Americans believe that the cost of living has been rising faster than wages over the past 20 years, although the reverse is true.

In the same survey, more than two-thirds of the country recognizes that payroll taxes paid into the Social Security trust fund are lent to the federal government and spent on other programs. But more than six in 10 of these same citizens doubt that the federal government will ever pay that money back.

To intelligently discuss the future of Social Security, we must first understand its history.

Social Security was created in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression. For 65 years, this program-one of the deepest moral obligations to our citizens-has provided critical income security for retirees, with more than one in three seniors depending on their Social Security check as their primary source of income.

Unfortunately, Social Security is not prepared to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

In 1935, most women did not work outside the home. Today, in a majority of households, both men and women hold jobs.

Sixty years ago the life expectancy of the average American was 68, barely long enough to collect some retirement benefits. Today, the life expectancy is 80. The number of people age 65 is rising and many more are living well beyond 85 years of age due to new medicines and better lifestyles.

In 1950 there were about 16 workers paying for each Social Security beneficiary. Today, there are about three and eventually, there will be only two workers to support each person on Social Security.

The bottom line is this: there will soon be more retirees collecting a Social Security check and receiving money through the system, and not enough workers to support them.

Social Security is safe for today s current and near-retirees. Their checks are guaranteed. But, the system is increasingly uncertain for future generations. According to several nonpartisan sources, the current system cannot afford to pay promised benefits to younger workers, our children and grandchildren.

In many cases, it is younger Americans who are thinking ahead. When I visit students in area high schools, I am often asked, Will Social Security be there for me when I retire? Many of these young people work after school or on weekends and plan to go to college and enter the job marketplace.

Frankly, I assure them that Social Security is safe for today s older Americans. But I warn them that the same cannot be said for their generation. The Social Security Trustees estimate that in 2018, the government will begin to pay out more in Social Security benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. This is just 13 years away! Like any good parent saving for their children s college education, we must plan ahead.

Members of Congress, regardless of their political affiliation, cannot ignore this reality and all share a responsibility to strengthen Social Security for future retirees. Ignoring the issue may be politically expedient, but it is unacceptable to those who deserve the same security about their retirement.

Strengthening Social Security is a very delicate issue, which must be handled with great care. We must take a long, hard look at potential reforms. Already, some have suggested creating voluntary personal retirement accounts, potentially giving young workers the right to own and control retirement accounts similar to IRAs and 401K plans. Others want to raise payroll taxes, which could threaten our economic recovery and continued job creation. And still, some have suggested doing nothing.

To be clear, reform will not be easy. I, for one, have not settled on the best course. However, I do know this: Congress and the President must find the most effective combination of changes to save Social Security and ensure it is available for all who need it.

Two Presidents have challenged Congress to conduct an open, candid and bipartisan discussion with the hope that a solution may be crafted. Let s move toward that goal by focusing on the facts, studying the issue, listening to our constituents and conducting the kind of honest dialogue the American people deserve.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen represents New Jersey s 11th Congressional District, which includes all of Morris County, parts of Somerset, Essex, Sussex and Passaic Counties.

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