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Op-Ed: Social Security’s pending insolvency should be front and center at next GOP debate

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For those Iowans who depend upon Social Security, little should be more worrisome than the GOP’s first debate among its contenders for president.

The troubling part of the debate was not what was said by the candidates, but rather what was not asked by the moderators. During the two-hour debate, not one question was asked about Social Security’s financial outlook, or the possibility of slashing benefits in 2033.

The absence of the topic of Social Security from the debate stage serves as an early warning alarm to those who depend upon the system that the long-term stability of that life line will once again drift away from the attention of those who wish to run the country.

It has been a long drift. The last time Congress found common ground on stabilizing the program’s long-term finances was nearly 40 years ago. Since that time, the buffer between seniors and reduced checks has shrunk from nearly 80 years down to 10.

Another way to express the building problem is someone who is 79-years-old today will likely outlive the program’s ability to keep the promises that it has made to seniors. That is not a worst-case scenario. It is the result that we should expect, even in a relatively robust economy.

While most people focus on when the consequences of Social Security will arrive, the cost to fix the program has continued to soar well out of sight of the broader public debate about the economy. Since 2010, the cost to fix Social Security has grown more than twice as fast as our economy.

In other words, the hole in the program’s finances is growing twice as fast as our ability to fill it.

The driver of this growth is the passage of time. According to the latest forecast from the trustees of the program’s trust funds, congressional inaction accounts for roughly 66 percent of the problem we face today. In the time you spend reading this column, the program will generate roughly $3 million in promises to current voters that it is unlikely to keep.

Yes, someone needs to ask hard questions of those who wish to run the country.

While 10 years might sound like some remote start date, the consequences of Social Security’s imbalances are playing out in the present day. According to the 2023 Schroders US Retirement Survey, nearly 45 percent of respondents said they would claim Social Security benefits earlier because they were concerned Social Security would be forced to reduce benefits as a result of the program’s dire financial situation.

The decision to take benefits early could haunt these retirees for the rest of their lives, particularly those with the misfortune of living into their 90s. These are Americans compromising their future solely because they doubt Washington has the ability to work on their concerns. It is a breathtaking statement of no confidence.

At this point, there is no indication that members of either party are aware that their constituents are redefining their lives as a result of their inability to do their job. Democrats collectively are more than $10 trillion apart on what benefits the program should provide. Republicans, on the other hand, have only hinted at changes that they would like to make, but none have gone to the trouble of putting those ideas in legislative form.

Some voters firmly believe that Congress will step in at the last minute with changes so that those in or near retirement won’t see benefit reductions. Perhaps Congress will make up a lot of the shortfall by supplementing Social Security with general fund revenues. It is an extreme leap of faith to believe that a Congress in the future will solve this problem, when we can’t get those currently elected to even address the fact that there is a problem in the first place.

For those who depend upon Social Security, there is one certainty: Politicians will never provide answers to the difficult questions that they are not asked.

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