Friday, November 26, 2010

Social Security and the Fifth Commandment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Exodus 20:12

In the Ten Commandments, the first duties of human beings are in relationship to God. Then, further commandments translate our faithfulness to God into human terms.

The biblical injunction to care for the elderly is the first commandment that deals with human relationships. It comes before the admonitions against murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness. And among the commandments dealing with human relationships, it is the only one stated positively. It is not just that we should avoid harming the elderly, we should honor them.

For those of us in the United States of America, the most significant way that we honor and care for the elderly is through Social Security. It is more than a program or a system; it is a sacred covenant that binds us together. It is rooted in the Social Gospel and grew out of deep Judeo-Christian concerns. Before Social Security, most elderly people lived in poverty. Now they don’t.

Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history.

Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere for the past few decades, you know that Social Security is facing major long term problems. It is not, as some critics claim, “bankrupt,” but it will be if present trends continue. Revenues are not keeping up with expenses.

In the preliminary report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Co-Chairpersons Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles propose raising the Social Security retirement age by two years. The minimum age for reduced benefits would go up from 62 to 64, and the minimum age for full benefits would go from 67 to 69.

That sounds reasonable. And it is reasonable. For those of us with desk jobs. It’s not so reasonable for people who do physical labor. The average lifespan for American males has increased by five years for those in the upper income brackets, but only one year for those with lower incomes.

The Bowles-Simpson proposal is that laborers should work longer because executives live longer.

But there are alternatives.

In the summer of 2009, I wrote a blog about an article by Ellen Schultz in the Wall Street Journal. She pointed to a largely unnoticed result of the widening wealth gap in the United States. The fact that a lower total percentage of all wages are subject to Social Security taxes has reduced the amount in the fund.

In 2002 executive pay accounted for 28% of all wages. By 2007 that amount had risen to 33% of the total. This means that a lower percentage of total wages are subject to Social Security.

Simply put, the wealthiest people are not paying their fair share.

In 1982, 90% of all wages were subject to Social Security. That amount has now shrunk to 83%. This shift results in lost revenue of $115 billion per year. According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, if the Social Security maximum were adjusted to be comparable to 1982 levels, the fund would be solvent for the next 75 years.

Or we could just make the janitors work longer.

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