Politics & Policy

Saving Social Security in the 21st Century

(Zimmytws/Dreamstime)

This week, America marked two significant milestones in its history. Friday was the 80th anniversary of Social Security, a program that has helped millions of seniors, including my parents, retire with dignity. Saturday is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, when the most violent conflict in human history ended as an American victory.

We refer to the Americans responsible for these accomplishments as the “Greatest Generation.” In less than two decades, they survived economic catastrophe, triumphed in a global conflict, and laid the foundation for unparalleled prosperity for their children in what would become an American century. When faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, they took our nation to new heights. Because of their sacrifices, we have been able to enjoy what we call the American dream, promising that our children’s future will always be brighter than our own.

But while our nation stands on the shoulders of those before us, each generation must seize new opportunities and confront new challenges. Social Security and our other safety-net programs have helped many generations of American seniors, but neglect by Washington politicians in both parties has left them in peril, and reform is direly needed to prevent their collapse.

With Americans now living longer than ever before, the strain on Social Security’s finances is steadily increasing. We also have too few workers paying into the Social Security program, leaving it unable to fully finance the benefits promised to retirees. This is exacerbated by the fact that the labor-force-participation rate is lower than it has been in over 30 years. As a result, the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund will have its reserves depleted as early as next year. When this happens, the fund will only be able to provide 81 percent of scheduled benefits. Avoiding a cut in benefits will cost nearly $30 billion a year. Congress must act to avoid an automatic cut in benefits for disabled Americans.

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Social Security is too important for us to allow it to decay any further. We must transform this endangered system into a modern program that can meet the needs of our people in the 21st century. To this end, I have proposed several reforms to sustain and modernize Social Security, and help people plan for their retirement.

Social Security is too important for us to allow it to decay any further.

First, we must gradually increase the retirement age for individuals under 55, without changing it for current seniors like my mom. It is important that we keep our promises to current beneficiaries and those nearing retirement, but for Americans closer to my age, we need to have an honest conversation about saving Social Security. With the average American working longer than when Social Security was first conceived, it’ll take some changes to keep Social Security solvent and responsive to Americans’ needs.

Second, we should do more to protect seniors on the bottom of the income scale, who are too often consigned to poverty in old age. This can be done by reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors while making the program even stronger for lower-income seniors. This is not a cut, but simply a reduction in the growth of benefits for wealthier retirees.

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Finally, we must empower our people to save more for retirement. Social Security should be one component of retirement security along with employment-based plans and personal financial assets like IRAs, mutual funds, and personal savings accounts. Americans should also be able to save for retirement without paying taxes on their retirement investments. My tax-reform plan eliminates taxes on interest, capital gains and dividends. Educating Americans on the benefits associated with retirement saving and planning is also important.

#related#For what I’ve written here, I have no doubt I will be attacked by those on the left who believe we should do nothing to save Social Security. As someone whose mother counts on Social Security, I would never stand behind a proposal that would hurt my mother or seniors like her. I firmly believe that these reforms are the best solution to our nation’s entitlement crisis.

Like the Greatest Generation once did, our own generation stands at a crossroads. We can stand obstinate in the face of inevitable change, allowing political division to keep us from meeting our challenges, or we can embrace commonsense reforms that will continue to allow our seniors to retire with dignity. I am confident that doing so will go a long way toward making the 21st century another American century.

— Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.

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