Tuesday, January 25, 2005

There is No Crisis, pt. II

My latest op-ed for the Lancaster Sunday News:

When I write on political issues, my editors prefer that I sprinkle scripture throughout the article in support of the argument.  But in the case of Pres. Bush's proposed changes to Social Security, I think I'll stick to two broad principles:  "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16), and God's care for the poor, which is found throughout the Bible.

We often forget, for example, that there is another part to the phrase "honor your mother and your father":  that your days may be long in the land.  The idea here is that children should take care of their aging parents so as to set a good example for their own children, who will in turn care for their parents when the time comes.  

Social Security, of course, is a way to do just that.  Its income is derived from withholding on the wages of current workers, which is then spent to supplement the income of retired citizens.

The system works.  In fact, it works so well that it's built up a surplus of 1.6 trillion dollars.  It's estimated that the program will continue to take in more money than it pays out until about 2014.  But due to that surplus, it will be able to pay benefits until sometime between 2052 and 2080, depending on which estimates you use.  Even then, relatively modest changes on the income or expense side of the equation could keep the program going indefinitely.  These are not numbers crunched by people with partisan agendas; they come from the Social Security Administration and the Congressional Budget Office.

In other words, by the government's own estimates, we should be able to honor our fathers and mothers far out into the future.  Even someone entering the workforce today should be able to expect to retire with full benefits.

Still, there will eventually be a day of reckoning, if current trends continue and retirees begin to outnumber current workers.  The administration's response to this problem is to create partially privatized accounts, financed by between 1 and 2 trillion dollars in borrowing.

This proposal is troubling from both the perspective of policy and that of faith.  For one thing, the federal budget deficit is estimated to exceed $2.3 trillion by 2015, without the costs of this proposal or the war in Iraq included.  If Pres. Bush's tax cuts are included, that figure rises to $3.6 trillion.  Taken as a percentage of all the goods and services produced in the nation, the total cost of those tax cuts is more than double the Social Security deficit.

Which brings us to principle number 2:  God's care for the poor.  Ps. 22:26 tells us of God's promise that "the poor shall eat and be satisfied".  Christ himself blesses the poor and promises them the Kingdom of God in Luke 6:20, and in three gospels invites a rich man to sell all that he has to give to the poor.

The original intent behind Social Security was to make sure that the elderly and disabled had at least some income to fall back on if they were unable to work.  Partly, that's an economic policy; by ensuring their income, Social Security keeps such people in the economy, which is to everyone's benefit.  But the policy also has a social justice component.  It smoothes out some of the inequalities in our economy, so that you don't have to be rich to retire.  It continues to do that today, even when most retirees have other sources of income, and the moral obligation behind the policy is still in effect.

Given that more than half of Pres. Bush's tax cuts will go to the wealthiest 1% of the population, one has to ask, are our priorities set in favor of the poor?

If they were, would we not prefer to let the tax cuts expire in 2010?  Would we not use the money to fund the retirement of people who have no other means of support, especially if those people have been diligently paying into the system for their entire working life?  Is it an honor to our fathers and mothers--or to our children--to starve their safety net so that the very richest can get richer?

How can that possibly be squared with the teachings of the One who declared himself come "to declare good news to the poor"?


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