Yesterday, Hillary Clinton called Social Security "the most successful domestic program in the history of the United States". The crowd -- AARP usuals -- erupted in applause, but the comment beggars serious belief. For the more shrewd listeners in the crowd, it might have been a bit awkward to consider that Hillary was, at the very same time, vowing "to fix" it. Why would the most successful program in US history need to be fixed? Hillary was either lying or demonstrating how poorly the government tends to succeed. In fact, both are correct.
These days, everyone is whistling their own tune on Social Security. The working youth have zero confidence that their payroll deductions will end up back in their bank account in 40 years. More folks in their 20s believe in alien abductions, than that they'll ever see a dime of their Social Security money. Middle age professionals also have their doubts. Old people are frantic about losing their checks.
Regardless of where you are in the froth, here are a few facts.
By 2015, Social Security will be paying out more than it collects from taxpayers annually. For the next 20 years following that, the program will be able to cover itself if the federal government pays back what it has borrowed from Social Security over the last 20 years. Whether it will be able to do that or not is beside the point. The impact on the national debt will be enormous.
Had the Republican-backed "lockbox" bill passed five years ago, all the money raided from Social Security would have only been used to pay off non-federal entities (grandmothers who purchased US Savings Bonds). That would have, at the very best, kept the national debt level. But the money burned a hole in Democrats' pockets, and now the national debt will explode as funds are swiped from one government program to pay off another.
Those that believe Social Security is a bad program typically believe that politicians routinely clean out the coffers and use the money for whatever they want. That is not the case. By law, the contributed funds are not allowed to be touched. That was part of the original Social Security Act of 1935. Only the annual surpluses can be loaned out, and they must be paid back with interest - a deed that has always occurred. The real problem is that, in order to work, Social Security requires future generations to be dying at the same age as the current generation (or younger) and producing as many children (or more). The exact opposite has happened.
The retirement age has stayed exactly the same since 1940, yet life expectancy is now 5 years longer for those over 65 - a 40% increase in benefit collecting.
In the 1940s, women were having on average between 3 and 4 children apiece. By 2000, the rate dropped to 2.1. In the 1970s and 80s it was as low as 1.7.
These trends have furiously maddened the payout rate. In 1960, there were 687,000 people receiving benefits. In 2000, there were 6.7 million. That is an increase of 850% even though the general population only increased by 56% in the same time period. Current projections show an 80% increase in eligibility over the new 20 years with only a 2% increase in tax collection during the same period.
And Hillary Clinton says this is the most successful program in the history of US government.
At the AARP conference, Clinton solemnly promised to never cut benefits or raise the eligibility age, which -- for Hillary -- is not empty campaign wind. As she told AARP, "privatization is not the answer to anything". And for her, it really isn't. In fact, for Hillary there is no crisis at all. Like her friend, Ted Kennedy, if she needs more money for new programs, she'll just walk over to the US Treasury and have them cut her a check. If they're out of money, she'll find a group of rich people and force them to write her and the Treasury a check. Better to have some extra for next time.
Let's assume for a moment that Social Security was not the floundering botch that it clearly is. Let's assume that it collected taxes and floated retirees with no negative trends in sight. What of its other gaping flaws?
Like the IRS, the Social Security Administration lives high on the hog. Its administrative overhead -- just the cost of doing business -- is nearly $4 billion dollars per year. That is equal to 1% of all benefits paid each year.
In January of 2001, the Social Security Advisory Board stated in an official report that "There is a lack of management accountability," going on to claim that many SSA rulings are so complex and difficult that employees cannot adhere to them without "spending substantially increased time leading to dramatically increasing backlogs." They noted that all problems relating to administration began at the top.
Democrats eagerly pointed the finger at President Bush when the report surfaced, but it was hard for them to keep a straight face. Bush had been in office for less than one month. The numbers show that the administrative costs at the SSA climbed 11% during Bill Clinton's presidency. And that's after Reagan and Bush's had lowered them by 16%.
Then there's the fat that no one is fighting to keep. For instance, the Social Security Administration itself estimates that they pay upwards of $180 million dollars per year to felony fugitives. Cons paying cons! Never mind the $20 million dollars per year paid to dead people.
The government's "most successful program" indeed.