photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Thinking Anew: An Argument for Raising Social Security Benefits

The New York Times published an op-ed that has a compelling argument for raising, not just saving, Social Security benefits. In Get Radical: Raise Social Security. Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and author of the article observes that many of America’s senior citizens are living on $10,000 a year. He asserts that “the biggest crisis we face is that most of us have nothing meaningful saved for retirement.” He continues:

A recent Harris poll found that 34 percent of Americans have nothing saved for retirement — not even a hundred bucks. In this lost decade, that percentage is sure to go up. At retirement the lucky few with a 401(k) typically have $98,000. As an annuity that’s about $600 a month – not exactly an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

In fact, it is far below the official poverty line, which right now is $10, 289 a year for a single individual age 65 and over. Can you imagine trying to pay rent (or property taxes), utilities, food, and medications on $10,000 a year, or less?  But the sad truth is that more than 3.4 million of our senior citizens do live below the poverty line.

Mr. Geoghegan argues that to “save” Social Security is fairly easy – lift the cap on the payroll tax for high earners and maintain their benefits at current levels.  However, he believes we can do better: close the deficit and raise Social Security benefits to half, instead of the current third, of the average worker’s earnings. He proposes:

  • Lifting the cap on the payroll tax for those earning more than $106,800 a year (the current income level at which payments to the Social Security fund stops)
  • Keeping benefits to those high earners at current levels
  • Dedicating revenues from the estate tax to Social Security
  • Raising the payroll tax by 1 percent for both employees and employers.

It’s an interesting, radical idea, and an excellent example of “thinking anew.”  It’s an idea worth discussing.  What do you think the barriers to raising Social Security benefits would be?  Would your elected officials support a plan like this? How does Catholic social teaching compel us to act?  Read the full column and some of the comments that readers made, then post your ideas and comments here. Let’s take the debate to these pages.