A look behind the Social Security Privatization Rhetoric
Social Security easily the most popular
government program in U.S. History is under attack by those who claim the system is
in trouble and must be dramatically reshaped before 'it goes broke.' Is Social
Security really in trouble or is there another agenda behind the rhetoric?
We want to save
Social Security," claims Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) But in fact, what he and other
Senate Republicans (and some Democrats) hope to achieve is the complete dismantling of
Social Security. They will "save" the system by handing its trust fund over to
financial speculators, leaving working-class Americans without guaranteed, secure
Social Security privatizers face an uphill battle in trying to destroy the
credibility of the most popular government program in U.S. history. They are seeking to:
manufacture a scare about the solvency of Social Security;
create resentment among blacks, women, the poor and the young that they
will not get their fair share out of Social Security;
redefine the idea of Social Security as a speculative investment program
for our individual savings, instead of what most Americans believe it is a social
insurance program into which everyone pays to provide us income as long as we live.
According to privatizers, there are two big problems facing Social
Security: a financial gap and equity gap. Privatizing (or "personalizing")
Social Security would solve these problems, say those who hope to dismantle the present
The supposed financial problem is based in part on changing demographics.
In the 1960s there were six workers supporting every person receiving Social Security
benefits; today there are three workers per recipient, and in twenty years or so there
will be only two workers per recipient.
Privatizers also point out that the Social Security trust funds will not
continue to take in more money than is paid out, as they do now. Sometime around the year
2030 or 2032, the trust funds will run out of reserves, and the Social Security taxes paid
in will cover only about 75 percent of benefits. To close the Social Security gap, taxes
would have to go up from 12.4 percent to about 18 percent or benefits would have to be
reduced. This is according to the Social Security Commissions most pessimistic
Myth and Reality
The privatizers assumptions about financial and equity problems do
not tell the entire story about Social Security. The Social Security privatizers
conveniently ignore key economic facts.
Social Security may have some manageable financing problems due to
population changes. But the scare about lower benefits and new taxes of 18% is based on
some biased assumptions:
The economy will grow much more slowly in the next century than it grew
in this century. Traditional levels of economic growth would increase the Social Security
trust funds and remove much of the financial gap. For example, the faster growth of the
economy over just the past year added three years to the predicted life of the Social
Security trust fund.
Furthermore, when privatizers promise that personal accounts will
"return" more than Social Security will give us, they are inconsistent. They are
comparing a rosy past performance of the stock market with a gloomy prediction for future
economic growth. But if the future economy does grow so slowly, then the stock market will
also be slow growing. No economist believes that the stock market could do well for long
in the future if long-term economic growth is slow.
Privatizers also talk as if high returns on the stock market will be
about as risk-free as Social Security (although when pushed, they admit, "you take
your chances..."). The stock market is not a risk-free investment. For example, take
all possible twenty-year periods over the last century of the stock market (1901-1920,
1902-1922, 1903-1923...). For about one-third of this century, stock market returns were
negative, after subtracting inflation and stock management fees. If those were your main
money-earning years, tough luck. (Most Americans do have just 20 or 25 years of prime
The Fairness Issue
To build support for privatization, Santorum and other opponents of Social
Security claim the system is unfair. The so-called equity or fairness problem is based on
the following propositions:
Because they die earlier than others, black men and poor people get a
lower "return" on the money they put into Social Security. If you die before
reaching retirement age, your survivors get only $250 in death benefits.
Women who miss 15 to 20 years of work to raise children, especially
single women, get a lower "return" on "their money."
Each new generation gets less "return on their money" than the
Compared to privatization, the current Social Security system supports
the big gap between the rich and the poor: Social Security taxes keep the poor from
saving, while the rich can afford to save after paying Social Security taxes.
Privatizing would let blacks, women, and the poor reduce the wealth gap
by saving in their own accounts to create wealth. It would also increase everyones
"return on our money."
What Kind of System?
The privatizers whole game is to get us to think that the taxes we
and our employers pay are "our investment money," on which we should expect a
rate of a return. As soon as they succeed at getting us to think about Social Security as
if it were an investment, they can get us to think about ourselves as individuals all
alone, and forget any social solidarity. Then they can convince us to see risky
investments as something we must accept when we think about our retirement income.
Social Security taxes are taxes designed to pay for social insurance
retirement income for those who live long enough to need it, not personal
investments. The main question is not whether someone gets more than others before dying
(though this can be an issue!) it is whether people are retiring with enough
income. Privatizers want to make the question of enough retirement income a private
investment issue, while Social Security makes it a public issue and a right.
What About Fairness?
What about fairness for women, blacks and the poor?
Women have been heavily disadvantaged under Social Security, but many of
the problems have been corrected. Women do not need personal Social Security savings
accounts to fix the remaining problems.
The gap between blacks and others pretty much disappears if you look at
all of the Social Security programs not just retirement but also survivors and
Last, the idea that the gap between the rich and the poor will close
significantly if the poor are forced to save 4% of their low incomes is ludicrous. Since
the rich would also save an additional 4% on larger income, the gap would widen!
Privatizers like Sen. Santorum have adopted as their guiding principles
the preservation of benefits to survivors and disabled workers, focusing on the people
least well-off, and no new taxes.
Santorum would "save" Social Security by dividing the 12.4
percent Social Security tax Americans and their employers pay, placing 4 percent into
personal accounts (like 401[k] accounts) where we would decide what investments to make,
and retaining 8.4 percent for a retirement safety net. Upon retirement, personal accounts
would buy annuities. Some plans put more, others less, into these personal accounts.
The Santorum crews guiding principles have everything to do with
their goals of privatizing the system, and little do with saving any semblance of the
system initiated under President Franklin Roosevelts New Deal. Most Americans have
gone beyond thinking of Social Security as a mere safety net to seeing it as a form of
social insurance to guarantee basic income for all retirees, survivors and the disabled.
This idea deserves to be defended against privatizers.
What about taxes? The rich pay Social Security taxes only on the first
$68,000 of their income. Removing this cap to require the rich to pay Social Security
taxes on all of their income would close about 67 percent of the predicted Social Security
shortfall. Focus on the poor? A hollow claim. If only 8.4%, instead of the 12.4% tax, goes
into the new safety net, this will push the net even lower!
Eliminating Social Security ranks high on the corporate agenda.
Privatization would open the trust fund to the finance industry, making a handful of
speculators wealthy at our expense. Corporations have long desired the wholesale
elimination of social protections that support American living standards, in order to
lower our wages. If our government retirement plan is eliminated, Social Security will be
replaced by widespread individual insecurity.
Dont let Wall Street skim off your hard-earned Social Security
(This article is based on a presentation by UE Research Dir. David
Alexander to the May 29 meeting of the UE-GE Conference Board.)
UE News/July, 1998