Retirement Age Stars In Soc. Sec. Debate

Blank US Social Security checks over social card
AP / CBS
Want to keep Social Security from going bankrupt? Make future recipients wait longer for their first benefit check because they probably will live longer anyway, an influential group of actuaries says.

The next president and a new Congress will come under increasing pressure to act to fix the Social Security system. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama rejects any increase in the retirement age while his GOP rival John McCain opposes tax increases as a possible fix.

The American Academy of Actuaries, which advises policymakers on risk and financial security issues, wants any potential solution the White House and lawmakers might consider to include raising the retirement age from the current range of 65-to-67-years-old. The group provided The Associated Press with an advance look Thursday of its recommendations.

Current benefits are supplied by payroll taxes from today's workers, all of whom pay a 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax on income up to $102,000. Their employers match it, for a total tax of 12.4 percent. The tax applies only to earned income, not to passive income such as dividends and interest.

Benefits are projected to exceed the Social Security system's tax revenues in about nine years. The program's trustees have said the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by 2041 without changes.

A major problem, the actuaries say, is that people are living longer. That means they are drawing more money from the program.

When Social Security started in 1935, the average American's life expectancy was just under 60 years, according to the Social Security Administration. By comparison, people now eligible for Social Security can expect to live on average a little past 76, the agency says, "meaning workers have more time for retirement and more time to collect Social Security."

For many years, 65 has been the retirement age to receive full benefits. But under changes in 1983, only people born before Jan. 2, 1938, can collect full benefits at 65. Those born after that date face a gradually rising retirement age for full benefits until it reaches 67.

Current estimates show that by 2040, 65-year-old men and women could live at least 18 more years after becoming eligible for full Social Security benefits.

"You just can't have people living longer and longer and longer, and have the program with a frozen normal retirement age of 67. It just doesn't make sense," said Bruce Schobel, the chairman of an academy task force on retirement security principles. "Eventually people will have a larger and larger proportion of their lives spent in retirement until you reach the point where we just can't afford it."

The academy is not staking out a position on when people should retire and acknowledges that saving Social Security will take more than just raising the retirement age.

"All that we're suggesting is that some increase in the retirement age should be part of any package," Schobel said.

Obama already has rejected such advice. "We will not raise the retirement age," Obama said in June at a campaign event in North Carolina.

Obama has, however, called for a Social Security payroll tax on incomes above $250,000 a year, compared with the current $102,000 threshold.

"Barack Obama is opposed to raising the retirement age. He believes we should strengthen Social Security while protecting the middle-class families that rely on it," said Jason Furman, Obama's campaign economic policy director. "To that end, he would like to work with Congress on a plan to ensure that people making over $250,000 pay a little more to strengthen this vital program for generations to come."

McCain originally said everything was on the table to fix Social Security. He recently has amended that position, saying he would not increase payroll taxes. "I want to look you in the eye: I will not raise taxes or support a tax increase," he told supporters Wednesday.

Former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who served as a McCain adviser until he resigned earlier this month, told The Washington Times this month that a bipartisan deal to save Social Security might include raising the retirement age to 70 over 30 years.