Social Security: Candidates Duck

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Both Congressional District One candidates have tried to shove their opponent into the steaming hot tar baby of an unpopular position in the Social Security debate, but ultimately, neither one will take a position.

Read the press releases in the race between Democratic incumbent Ann Kirkpatrick and Republican challenger Paul Gosar, and it sounds like a fight with the retirement of future generations in the balance. In truth, neither candidate has taken a position on reforms needed to save the system.

Kirkpatrick, a former prosecutor and state legislator, harshly criticized Flagstaff dentist Gosar in a recent interview for allegedly supporting the “privatization” of Social Security — a plan favored by former President George Bush that would let younger workers opt out of the system and set up private accounts invested in stocks and bonds.

“I don’t think we can put Social Security back in the hands of Wall Street,” said Kirkpatrick, “knowing they’re the ones that caused this economic downturn. Gosar is going to have to quit putting off the hard decisions. I’m fighting to save it and keep every worthy option on the table. I’m against privatization. That would be a catastrophe.”

Later, Kirkpatrick’s campaign issued a press release alleging that Gosar’s plan amounted to “work until you die.” The claim played off a remark Gosar made during a Prescott forum.

However, Gosar says Kirkpatrick has distorted his position. “I’m against privatization. I want the (budget) numbers. I don’t think anyone has given us real-time numbers. We have to increase the jobs in the private sector.” His Web site says he’s also against any increase in the retirement age and any tax increase — which rules out almost all of the proposed reforms.

Independent commissions have issued several sets of proposed solutions to the system’s inexorable demographic crisis. At the program’s inception, six workers paid into the system for each retiree, leading to a rapid increase in benefits. But currently, about 3.4 workers pay into the system for each beneficiary, a ratio that will fall to 2.3 workers per retiree in 2025, says the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

The federal government has borrowed the system’s $2.5 trillion accumulated surplus — a total that will rise to $3.5 trillion in 2015.

In 1980, it took the average retiree just 2.8 years to recover everything they’d ever paid into the system, plus interest. By 2002, it took nearly 17 years to recover all payments and interest. By 2020, it will take a whopping 21 years.

The trust fund will be exhausted by 2041, at which time the system would have to cut benefits to 73 percent of current levels.

Several task forces have recommended changes to keep the system solvent. For instance, boosting payroll taxes from 12.4 percent to 14.4 percent or approving a 13 percent reduction in benefits would restore the long-term balance of the system.

Some have proposed raising the ceiling on the payroll tax, which now stands at $106,800. Others have proposed altering the inflation adjustment now used for Social Security, which studies have suggested exaggerates the real effect of inflation by as much as 1 percent.

Other proposals recommend additional increases in the age at which people could collect a maximum benefit to reflect a 50 percent increase in the life expectancy at retirement since the system’s inception.

Kirkpatrick has not taken a position on any of the proposed reforms, but her campaign has suggested that Gosar would cut benefits and privatize the system. Kirkpatrick notes that Gosar has gotten money from groups supporting privatization, including Americans for Prosperity and 60 Plus.

However, Gosar says he opposes privatization, any increase in the retirement age or any increase in taxes.

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