For three-quarters of a century, Social Security has been one of the most popular of the programs adopted during the Great Depression and New Deal era. Now the big issue is how to keep Social Security financially sound for the millions of workers who look forward to receiving Social Security checks when they retire.
The problem has been expressed in this warning by the Social Security trustees: "After 2014, cash deficits are expected to grow rapidly as the number of beneficiaries continues to grow at a substantially faster rate than the number of covered workers."
In other words, there will be a lot more retirees receiving payments but not a lot more workers paying money in to finance the benefits.
Last year, a bipartisan commission examining Social Security taxes noted that in 1950, there were 16 workers contributing payroll taxes to finance the program for each recipient, but that today there are only three workers paying in for each person receiving Social Security benefits.
By the year 2025, the ratio will be down to 2.3 to 1! And over the next 75 years, the commission said, the program will face a shortfall equivalent to about 1.9 percent of taxable payroll.
The commission warned that "Unless we act, these immense demographic changes will bring the Social Security program to its knees."
Of course, we can't allow that to happen because so many millions of Americans have paid into Social Security and are relying on it to be there. So, something must be done.
One proposal, from congressional liberals, is to increase the payroll tax on the wealthy. They say that will bring in trillions of dollars over the next several decades, and keep Social Security solvent. Other observers are not so sure that money would really go toward shoring up Social Security, and the proposal contrasts with President Barack Obama's current proposal to include a payroll tax cut in his massive new stimulus bill.
We don't want to let Social Security beneficiaries down - and we don't want to raise Social Security taxes on workers still on the job. That would reduce economic activity and ultimately government revenue.
Solutions are not evident, but it is refreshing that at last there is a real conversation going on about the dire circumstances facing Social Security.