The Problems with Social Security and Medicare: If you work in politics at the federal level and even mention Social Security and Medicare, you better be ready for war. These programs are in the ultimate political safe space, even though they are dreadfully flawed. Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable and are sure to run out of money in our lifetime. There are not enough workers to pay into the system. People are living longer and require the benefits to help them until they are 90-years-old in some cases.
So, this system needs to be changed, right? Wrong.
It’s a Losing Proposition
Discuss any changes whatsoever to Social Security and Medicare while running for office and you will likely lose.
Better yet, accuse your opponent of wanting to change these programs and you will win. There is nothing more sacred in American politics than Social Security and Medicare.
Social Security and Medicare Are Indispensable
Many Americans have no retirement savings and no health insurance once they stop working. They pay into both systems through payroll taxes during their career and expect Social Security and Medicare to take care of them in old age. Private pensions and health care provided by companies after retirement is a thing of the past for most people.
Yes, there are still jobs in the private sector that do offer pensions and retiree healthcare, but this is becoming an archaic notion.
Are These Things Ponzi Schemes?
So, what is left in old age when the private sector turns you loose in retirement and you have no 401k or an IRA? The federal government must step in to help senior citizens. But Social Security and Medicare are slated to run out of money. It is estimated that in the next 30 years, Social Security has promised to pay benefits that cost $21 trillion.
There is no $21 trillion set aside for these liabilities. It doesn’t exist.
Medicare has a $48 trillion shortfall, according to Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute writing in the New York Times. If you talk about this it falls on deaf ears. If you are a politician, you can witness your future go up in smoke merely for asking for the federal government to review the programs.
Republicans Are Unfairly Made Out to Be Bad Guys
That’s what Senator Rick Scott from Florida did or at least that’s what Democrats said Scott did. But what did he actually say? Scott proposed that all federal programs should sunset every five years and Congress should vote on whether they should be kept or not.
Scott did not specifically say anything about Social Security and Medicare.
Shazam! President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saw a way to claim that all Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare. That’s not what Scott said, but no matter.
For these entitlement programs even if you raise the slightest whiff of reform, it is enough to bring out the Spanish Inquisition and get you labeled a heretic.
Biden Makes Himself Out to Be a Hero
Biden made Social Security and Medicare a significant part of his State of the Union address, even though most Republicans have no intention of changing the programs one iota, even if lawmakers know that the programs are insolvent.
This sets up an irresistible situation for Democrats. All they have to say is Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare then Democrats can save the day. That’s not true, but we are talking politics here – the truth is relative.
Just an appearance of changes to the programs are enough to sway an election or at least get an applause line.
Reforms Are Needed
Some day both programs will run out of money (around 2037) and either the retirement age will have to be raised, benefits cut, or more payroll taxes will have to paid into the system. All will be unpopular and anyone who tries to make these changes will be vilified.
France Is the Test Case
France’s President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to do something similar with his country’s pension system. He is proposing to raise the retirement age and hundreds of thousands of French citizens have taken to the streets on multiple occasions as a result. Macron has become a punching bag. The lesson here is to not mess with retirement programs or face a revolt from your citizens. In America, politicians are taking note.
Social Security and Medicare may not have a bright future, but everyone must pretend that the programs are untouchable.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.
February 21, 2023 at 10:47 pm
Republicans have tried for years to cut Social Security/Medicare without looking at the real reasons it is underfunded. If all income was subject to FICA there would be no cash shortage, but you’d have the uber rich people sniveling
Brent, Have you noticed Scott is backpedaling as fast as he can? If you’re going to be a real reporter you might want to quit twisting the facts.
February 22, 2023 at 5:03 am
Dear Mr. Eastwood, both Social Security and Medicare have a shining future, simply because so many older Americans – voting older Americans – depend on them.
Which means a way will be found to keep these programs going.
My best guess is that, eventually:
– the starting age for Social security and Medicare benefits will be coupled to average life expectancy.
– in Medicare there will be some savings through tougher negotiations with care providers and pharmaceutical companies,
– both systems will be financially supported by a mixture of higher payroll taxes and probably some additional assistance from the Federal government, paid mostly by high earners.
Some remarks on the coupling of the starting age of these benefits to average life expectancy:
– Average life expectancy in the USA has stagnated since 2010. When will it start to grow? I don’t know.
– The USA has vast differences in life expectancy among the various segments of society. African Americans and white working class people have clearly lower life expectancy than higher educated whites, for example. Raising the starting age for both programs would in some ways work out as a financial transfer from poorer people to richer people, from people with less education to more education, from African Americans to white Americans.
With both the progressive left and populist right having loud voices in American politics and society, any attempt to raise the starting age could become a big divisive issue.
February 22, 2023 at 9:06 am
Scott did not specifically preclude Social Security or Medicare from his sunset law proposal. Are we supposed to be clairvoyant? No, Scott fully intended to include both programs. In fact, those were the two programs the law was targeting. Scott was and is an un indicted felon. He is interested only in privatizing everything, to fatten the bank accounts of his cronies and himself. Look only toward his rejection of a government funded high speed rail system in FL while governor, and now his participation in a group to privately fund the same project. The only difference is he will profit. He is a grifter who cares nothing for the people of his state only caring about lining his pockets with the hard earned money of Floridians.
February 22, 2023 at 1:05 pm
Perhaps if Politicians didn’t steal funds from Social Security over the last 2 Decades, it wouldn’t be such a dire problem?