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Expand Social Security’s Role in Retirement

Posted on February 7, 2006 in the Kansas City Star, by Max J. Skidmore, Guest Columnist

The rapid disappearance of corporate pensions should cause business leaders and government officials to take a new look at Social Security.

It was designed originally to provide a floor for retirement rather than to be a complete system. It was one leg of a three-legged stool. The two other legs were company pensions and private savings.

Now, however, with only its Social Security leg left, the stool has collapsed. Workers have almost no savings, and corporations are abdicating their role in providing guaranteed benefits. Despite the scare propaganda regarding Social Security, it is the only part of worker retirement that remains strong and is not evaporating.

In many ways the situation is the same for retirement as for health care. Companies are discovering that they can no longer afford to provide health coverage for their workers or retirees. They are at a severe disadvantage when competing with industries in countries that have government health benefits. Often in those countries, business leaders were among the strongest advocates of government health insurance as a way to lessen the burden on industry. Undoubtedly, it has worked for them.

America, with its Jeffersonian heritage, tends to resist government solutions to problems until they become inevitable. That time is coming, if it is not already here.

Awareness has been slow to develop that America ‘s health care delivery system is in the most basic sense eroding our national security. Some business leaders are in advance of politicians now in office, and are beginning to discuss the advantages of government health care. They know that it is in their best interest to have a healthy work force. Looking at the issues objectively, they are asking whether a government program, a single-payer arrangement, might be the only way to maintain that work force while being competitive. Whatever reluctance there may be, it likely is just a matter of time until the need for such a program becomes obvious to all but the most resistant.

Although the increasing economic insecurity of our work force is perhaps as corrosive as our inefficient and inadequate system of health care delivery, there has yet to develop even the vague awareness that it, too, can be corrected by a national program. In this case, such a program already exists.

Social Security functions far more efficiently than any other program of income maintenance, and without the personal risks inherent in private programs.

Despite this, the system has been under attack. It has been portrayed, falsely, as being “unsustainable.” Recent studies, though, support what a few of us have been saying for a decade: The system is substantially sound economically. Even if troubles were to develop, they would be modest.

The need, then, is to discard the notion of the “three-legged stool,” which in any case no longer applies. The trouble comes not from Social Security, but from the dwindling rate of private savings and the crumbling of corporate pensions. Social Security must supply the vacuum that private solutions are creating. The system should be expanded to provide a full retirement.

Such an expanded system of social insurance would retain disability and survivors’ coverage, spousal benefits and inflation protection. Because of its efficiency, it would cost less overall than the current patchwork arrangements. It would be fully portable. It would relieve industry of the burden of administering employee retirement – a burden it is shuffling off in any case – and it would increase the level of American competitiveness while providing complete retirement security for the work force.

This, coupled with a more efficient health care delivery system, would benefit the entire nation.

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