All the talk at the end of last year about the so-called "fiscal cliff" our country faced if Congress and the president couldn't agree on economic reforms got me to thinking about the fiscal cliff Social Security faces — not imminently but about 20 years down the road. And I'm obviously not the only one thinking about it. Not a single day goes by when I don't get emails from readers that include some comment like this: "Thanks for your help in understanding my Social Security situation. I just hope the program will still be there when I retire!"
I know that comments like that are often times meant to be flippant. But I also know that there is some degree of anxiety attached to those attempts at levity. And I guess folks can be forgiven for being anxious about the future of Social Security given all the scare stories you hear and read in the media about the program's imminent demise
But as I've pointed out hundreds of times in this column over the years, Social Security is NOT going away. Social Security has been around for almost 80 years. The program has changed a lot in the last eight decades and will change a lot in the next eight decades. But a basic Social Security program will always be the bedrock of our nation's pension and retirement system.
40 years ago, most of my readers probably were in their teens or twenties. They weren't paying very much attention to Social Security because they had other things on their minds — like starting careers and families. But 40 years ago I was very much interested in Social Security because I had just gotten a job with the Social Security Administration.
Almost from the get-go, I found myself doing public information work for the agency. One of my jobs was to run around and talk to various community groups about Social Security. My first speech was at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Chicago in 1975. And the very first question I got from a member of an audience went something like this: "Why should we bother listening to you and what you have to say because we all know Social Security will be gone long before we are eligible for benefits?"
As a neophyte at public speaking, I will admit that I was a bit taken aback by his comment. And I was even more bewildered when I noticed many heads in the room nodding with agreement. I really don't recall the not-very-convincing answer that probably stumbled out of my mouth. But I would like to meet this guy now. He was in his mid to late 40s at the time, and if he's still alive today, he's now in his 80s, if not pushing 90, and very likely has been getting Social Security benefits for 20 or 30 years!
But the thing is, that guy probably had more reason to be pessimistic about the future of Social Security than people today. Back in the late 1970s, Social Security was bumping up against some very bleak deadlines. I recall headlines like: "Social Security five years away from bankruptcy."
Currently we are about 15 years away from some serious financial problems for the program. I don't use the term "bankrupt" because the system never can go belly up. Even if the worst case scenario happens - meaning Congress takes absolutely no action on Social Security reform in the next decade and a half and the trust fund reserves dry up - Social Security will still be taking in enough money to pay 75 percent of all promised benefits. That's not bankruptcy, but it is some serious fiscal doo-doo!
But the point is, we are simply never going to reach that "fiscal cliff" for Social Security. We got close to that cliff in the late 1970s, but a bipartisan commission in 1983 ironed out a package of Social Security reforms that have kept the system solvent to this day. And the same thing will happen this time around. Long before we reach the next cliff, another package of reforms will be implemented.
As I said before, Social Security has changed a lot in the last 80 years, and it will change as needed in the future to ensure that all Americans, old and young alike, can count on the safety net of Social Security protection.