Brett Arends’s ROI: Why the COLA and Social Security matter

It’s a good rule: Before you launch a war, soften up the enemy with propaganda. Convince them they’ve already lost before the first shot has been fired.

If they think resistance is useless, they might not even fight.

With that in mind, here comes yet more evidence that the campaign to make us all give up on Social Security is bearing fruit. 

Just 4 in 10 Americans expect to get their full entitlements from the nation’s retirement plan when they retire, and about 1 in 5 think they won’t get anything at all. That’s based on a new survey conducted by the Boston College Center for Retirement Research. And it echoes, for example, the findings of a survey by the Pew Charitable Trust two years ago.

The latest study also finds that how we in the media cover Social Security’s finances are having an impact on the public. A Boston College study found that headlines really do matter. Headlines that referred to the trust fund’s expected “insolvency” made readers want to start claiming benefits earlier, and raised the number predicting cuts of 20-40%. 

Weirdly, though, the same headlines didn’t make the readers want to save more.

In both cases, the changes weren’t huge: Some groups wanted to start claiming benefits half a year or a year earlier than others. But they were there. What really struck me, though, was the pervasive pessimism among everyone, regardless of any headlines. About two-thirds of the most optimistic group were expecting benefit cuts of 20% or more when their time comes.

And that’s what we’ll get…only if we do nothing whatsoever to save Social Security’s finances. The trustees’ latest report predicts that the Social Security and Disability Insurance trust funds, which are generally considered together for these calculations, will be able to pay around 78% of benefits once their accumulated savings are depleted next decade. (The trustees say this will happen in 2034. The Congressional Budget Office, more gloomy, says 2032.)

Apparently Congress can find money to bail out a private sector pension fund run by the Teamsters, but it won’t be able to find enough money to rescue the public pension fund run by Uncle Sam.

It’s hard to imagine the disastrous results if we let Social Security be cut. The average senior citizen relies on Social Security for over 60% of their income in retirement. A third rely on it almost exclusively.

Time is our enemy. Every year this issue gets postponed, the costs rise and it gets politically harder to find a solution. It’s worth noting that the entire proposed funding shortfall after 2034 amounts to just over 1.2% of GDP a year. But maybe the Federal Reserve can just print the money we need. That seems to be the solution to everything these days.

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