When implemented, Social Security’s aim was to reduce elder poverty. In fact, I believe my grandfather became a Democrat almost solely because he credited Social Security with preventing his parents, who were dirt poor, from starving in the streets. When Social Security was implemented, those over 65 had the highest poverty rate of any age group. By 2010, this figure had dramatically reversed itself with the largest percentage of wealth being in the hands of Americans aged 55–75. No question, Social Security helped diminish elder poverty.
The solvency of the Social Security program is at risk, and has been at risk for many years. We have baby boomers headed into retirement, and in order to keep the program going, we need three times as many folks paying into the system as receive benefits. As of 2015 we had 2.8 workers paying per beneficiary. In addition to needing 3 workers for every beneficiary, we need to support our elders for about four years longer than we did in 1940. So, we live longer, and we need more workers to pay into the program than we currently have.
How do we bring stability to the system? My peers and I should work longer, by four years. So, if the minimum age to receive benefits is now 62, for us kids born 1975 and later, the minimum age should be moved to 66. Even for “youngsters” like myself (aged 41), this may be a tough sell. But to soften the blow, perhaps paid family leave should be incorporated into Social Security. Such an option would reform the existing Social Security program to offer working parents a choice to take “parental benefits” early (after the addition of a new child) in exchange for delaying retirement benefits later. Parental benefits would be calculated according to the disability formula, allowing lower-income families a greater portion of their pay replaced during a family leave period. As one obstacle to having children is economic, such a program would help with worker replacement to fund Social Security, by incentivizing a declining birth rate to recover. In addition, adding this benefit would ease the blow to my post-1975 born peers, by providing a give and take in delaying obtaining Social Security benefits until age 66.
A Congressional mandate that employers provide paid family leave would be disastrous and result in perceived employer punishment for adding employees and will further limit wage growth. Alternatively, Social Security-funded family leave wrapped into a larger program solvency legislation package is worthy of investigating. Congress hasn’t been known to multitask, but this may be one opportunity where killing two birds with one stone could create a net benefit to us all.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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