Shribman: Democratic candidates ignore Social Security at their own peril

Carlos Osorio/AP photoFrom left, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, are introduced before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN July 31 in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

PINKHAM NOTCH, New Hampshire — The people here are as old as the hills, almost.

More than 210,000 people here in the state that holds the first presidential primary are retired workers drawing Social Security. Washington sends $290 million a year here in old-age benefits. Overall, the median age here is 43 years old, making it the eighth oldest state — and by far the oldest of the states holding early political tests.

Two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both are receiving Social Security checks. So is the chief executive they are trying to unseat, along with 54 million of the people the two dozen presidential candidates seek to govern.

So with all that, why the deafening silence — not one syllable in almost 10 hours of Democratic debates spread over four nights — on perhaps the most important economic quandary the country faces: the fact that in the very year Americans choose their next president, their government will for the first time pay out more in Social Security than the country’s workers pour into the system?

In a political year that likely will have a surfeit of American firsts, that may be the most critical. Not once since Social Security began has the system had an annual net deficit. A 2017 General Accounting Office report subchapter is a masterpiece of understatement: “In Recent Decades, Retirement Issues Have Been Addressed With a Piecemeal Approach.”

That same report has perhaps the most harrowing content of any Washington report since the terrorism task-force report of 2002.

It shows that the median retirement savings for Americans between ages 55 and 64 was $107,000, which translates into a monthly payment of only $310 if invested in an annuity that grows with inflation. Add in an average of $1,413 per month from Social Security, and that comes to an average of $20,676 a year. For comparison, the poverty level for a family of four — $25,750 — isn’t that much higher.

More than a third of today’s retirees — who, experts agree, are living far better than will the next tranche of retirees — indicate that their financial status has declined, according to a study conducted by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a nonprofit, private foundation.

A third of current retirees worry about outliving their savings, and half of them worry that the crisis in the Social Security Trust Fund will force Washington to reduce their benefits. And fewer than half believe they’ve built a big enough nest egg. That average nest egg for baby boomers stands at between $75,000 and $157,000 — not even close to being enough for most of them.

Which is the perfect segue for the work of Lyman Stone, an agricultural economist who is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. He began his chilling analysis with an attention-getting five-word sentence: “The baby boomers ruined America.”

Stone’s major research project, “Red, White and Gray,” prepared for the American Enterprise Institute, argues that boomers’ political ascendancy “brought with it tightening control and stricter regulation, making it harder to succeed in America.” He explains:

“Just as the baby boomer generation rode a wave of life expectancy improvements, so did they ride a wave of institutional flexibility that future generations will not enjoy while implementing a series of regulations for others coming behind.”

But our concern here isn’t with the politics of the boomers, nor with the legacy of the anti-war movement, the youth rebellion, the counterculture, the mania for real estate and the tendency to make the word “parent” a verb and to take that verb, like every other one associated with those born between 1946 and 1964, to preposterous excess. (This column is being written by a baby boomer who pleads guilty as charged.)

Now that they are retiring — and about 10,000 of them reach age 65 every day — the boomers are doing more than contributing to an aging population, which itself has significant implications for American contemporary culture. They also are ceasing to plow money into the Social Security and Medicare systems.

You would think one of the candidates might have mentioned this at least once in this summer’s debates.

Because this issue is perfect for the two millennials running for president, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, born in 1981, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, born in 1982. (Those starting to save for retirement at the age of these two need to sock away about a quarter of their income, according to Fidelity Investments. That’s a heavy load.) It also is an opportunity for the seven boomers running for president — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California — to show some generational responsibility.

That goes, too, for the boomer-in-chief, Donald Trump, born in the first year of the baby boom.

Some 150 Democratic lawmakers — including Sanders and Warren, who are co-chairs, along with Harris, Klobuchar, Gabbard, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and, when he was in the House, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas — created what they call the Expand Social Security Caucus. Its purpose: mainly to counter Trump’s assertions that his political rivals were determined to “destroy” Social Security. Their effort is mere posturing and has had no impact.

Seniors in these mountainous parts are not only prominent. They are active as well. In a remarkable book aimed at senior hikers called “Go Take a Hike!” Allen Crabtree, who leads a group of senior trekkers to the far peaks every week, writes about “the liberating power of the hills and mountains” and proclaims, “Every hike has its rewards.”

The entitlement crisis is a formidable hike into hostile hills. Democrats are the traditional defenders of Social Security and Medicare and don’t dare cut benefits. Republicans, who in 1982 lost 27 seats in the House largely over fears about Social Security cuts, discovered the dangers of the issue in the Reagan years and have not forgotten the perils inherent in addressing this crisis.

But as Crabtree has said, every hike has its rewards. This one — whether by benefit cuts, means-testing, tax hikes or removing the $128,400 cap on earnings subject to the Social Security payroll taxes — would be formidable. Americans looking beyond their own self-interest need to heed Crabtree and go take this hike.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.