Congress has until Jan. 15 to come up with another spending plan. As they negotiate, one thing you’ll hear a lot about is overhauling entitlement programs — particularly Social Security.
The program accounts for about 20 percent of federal spending. One argument in favor of cuts is that Social Security amounts to a huge transfer of wealth from the young to the old.
One person making that argument is Stanley Druckenmiller, a retired hedge fund manager. He’s been touring college campuses, hoping to rile up the young folks about Social Security the way he and his peers were riled up during the war in Vietnam.
“I watched the young people at that time bring down a president and change the whole political spectrum and end that horrible war,” he told an audience at New York University.
Using a lot of charts and graphs, Druckenmiller argued that with the retirement of the baby boomers, spending on Social Security will rise so much there will be no federal dollars left over for things that young people care about and that the country needs: education, the environment, infrastructure, medical research and so on.
“This is all current seniors just feeding at the trough, stealing from future seniors,” Druckenmiller said.
If “stealing” sounds like a harsh term, how about “war”?
“Older Americans, their lobbies and the politicians who do what they ask are actually waging war on young people,” says Jonathan Cowan, the director of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. Young people, he says, “aren’t doing much of anything” about the problem.
Cowan has been concerned about the growth of Social Security spending since the 1990s, when he co-founded an organization called Lead or Leave. That group tried to worry young people that Social Security’s reserve fund would run dry before it was their chance to collect.
In fact, if nothing is done, it actually will run dry in about 20 years. Cowan blames the lack of action in large part on the major lobby for seniors, the AARP.
“The AARP has stood in the way of virtually every serious entitlement reform that’s come along for quite a long time,” Cowan says.
That statement just makes AARP President Rob Romasco laugh. “We seem to get painted with that brush on everything,” Romasco says.
Romasco says his organization isn’t necessarily against changes to Social Security. He just doesn’t think those should be part of the budget process, because the program doesn’t contribute to the deficit. It’s self-funded through the payroll tax.
“It should be part of a separate conversation to deal with retirement,” says Romasco, because of vanishing pensions, declining 401(k)s and the difficulty that older people have finding work.
As for stealing from the young to give to the old, Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Social Security’s design has always included a transfer of wealth between generations, but it’s temporary.
“We’re all old at one point in our lives and we’re all young at one point in our lives,” Sawhill says. “So when we talk about the elderly stealing from the kids, it’s a bit misleading because it can all even out over time.”
Nancy Altman, the co-director of Social Security Works, says Social Security isn’t just about older Americans.
“It’s the largest children’s program,” Altman says. “Eight percent of the nation’s children receive benefits, either directly, because they’ve lost a parent or their parent has become disabled and can no longer work, or they’re being reared by their grandparents and Social Security [is] a primary part of the family’s income.”
The AARP’s Romasco says there are a dozen things that Congress could do to keep Social Security from running out of money or overwhelming the budget.
“Let’s ask the American people what they want to do, what they’re willing to pay for,” he says.
Actually, a number of pollsters have asked the American people about that. They’ve found that Social Security remains extremely popular and substantial majorities say they’d prefer raising taxes to reducing benefits. This tends to cut across party lines and age groups, something members of Congress will hear plenty about from voters when they talk about overhauling entitlement programs.