Few if any candidates for federal office will tell you that as a consequence of current federal law, young Americans are being screwed in two life-changing ways.
First, under current law, every Social Security beneficiary under the age of 48 will have their promised benefits cut by a third. And second, every young person who works is contributing between $10,000 and $20,000 to the health care and retirement of those lucky Americans who are already drawing benefits under federal law.
In some ways the second screwing is worse than the first. Young workers do not have the defined benefit retirement programs commonly enjoyed by their grandparents, and if they do have health care through their jobs, their annual deductibles are probably greater than what their grandparents paid to have children and attend college.
Perhaps the media will notice that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have something very important in common: Both are on Social Security, or at least they are eligible for the old age benefit guaranteed by Social Security.
Clinton is pushing 70. Trump just passed it. Both have substantial amounts of non-employment income to supplement their Social Security benefits. Neither have any personal concern about the Social Security trustees’ report warning that the so-called trust fund for the Old Age and Survivors program will be depleted in 18 years.
Congress is in the same privileged condition. The average age of senators and House members is 62 and 57 years, respectively. They will have congressional pensions to supplement their Social Security. And thanks to the lucrative revolving door to the private sector, it is unlikely that they, like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, will be personally impacted by the dire predictions of the report.
However, for every American under the age of 50—especially the growing numbers whose only source of retirement income will be Social Security—the trustees’ report is very bad news. The “Do Nothing Plan” supported by nearly every member of Congress and the presidential candidates contains a large cut in benefits or a comparably large increase in taxes. And every year support for the “Do Nothing Plan” is sustained, the burden on young Americans grows.
As I noted above, the “second screwing” of young Americans costs them more than $10,000 per year. And if you exclude government employees that number is almost $20,000 a year about the total average amount of college debt.
And as the growth of spending on current retirees grows, there are fewer and fewer private and public resources available for the programs young people desperately need: equity for college, child care, public education, and real long-term infrastructure that creates dependable good paying jobs. Congress and the President are robbing from our future to pay for our past.
That this is going on is not surprising to me. I know from 12 years in the United States Senate that there are two kinds of people in the U.S Congress. There are those who can count, and there are those who lose. And when it comes to elections, every candidate knows that seniors are much more likely than younger voters to show up.
Seniors are much more likely to vote for candidates who pander to them by telling them the above-mentioned truths. They may love their grandchildren, but pollsters will tell you not to count on that love translating into necessary adjustments in Social Security.
So, is all hope lost? Are we doomed to watch Congress kick this can down the road until the trust fund is depleted? Perhaps. But I offer three relatively informed pieces of advice to our relatively informed media that just might help.
First, recognize that those who support no change are actually supporting something. They are supporting the “Do Nothing Plan.” And this plan will have a real impact on future benefits and taxes.
Second, while it is worth noting that Secretary Clinton has said she is open to “raising the caps,” perhaps the media could ask our presidential and vice-presidential candidates if they feel guilty knowing that they have reached an age that makes them safe, while younger Americans—especially the middle class that is the object of their most intense concern—are going to get screwed under current law. (I was pleased to see at least that the vice-presidential candidates were asked about the trust fund at their debate.)
Third, recognize that we do not just need to fix Social Security so it is fair to all living generations. We need to agree on changes in Federal law that will ensure that all Americans have additional sources of non-employment income besides what they receive from the Federal Government.
If we do, the future of young Americans will become materially brighter. If we don’t, they will be doubly screwed.
Bob Kerrey is the former Democratic senator from Nebraska.