Pay attention to financial advice your financial adviser won't give you. Advisers do not emphasize that the government is a vital financial partner and partnership requires engagement. Government programs that ensure a baseline of income and health-care security insure our own household baseline security. It seems older people are getting the message; but younger not so much. Every adult eligible for Medicare and Social Security can vote, and they vote more. In the 2016 Presidential election turnout was 78% for people over age 75 and 58% for all Americans.
A key part of financial planning is understanding the roles the major government social insurance programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will play in your later years. Consider this: they are worth almost a million dollars to a middle-income American. According to economist Eugene Steuerle and his colleagues at the Urban Institute, a single man who retires in the year 2020 after a full career earning a median wage (about $44,000) can expect to receive $536,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits. In a couple where each spouse earned constant “average” wages over a career beginning at age 22 and retired on his or her 65th birthday would have over $1 million in health and retirement benefits. The expected benefits for couples turning 65 in 2050—age 30 today—are scheduled to rise under current law to almost $2 million.
These are stunning numbers. Our country made a commitment during the Depression to make sure that everyone and their families would be protected as they aged and if they became disabled. But national commitments don't renew themselves. Voting does.
The tax cuts in 2017 were a result of the Republican control of the federal government -- almost all Republicans voted for the tax cuts and almost all Democrats did not. The cuts added $1 trillion to the federal deficit and the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation did not support Republican arguments that the $1.5 trillion tax cut would pay for itself with economic growth. Senator McConnell's announcement today makes clear political elites will use Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as bargaining chips in budget negotiations and call for cuts in government spending. The higher deficits caused by the tax cuts of 2017 will fuel the chronic attack to cut the programs.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow commented that “We have to be tougher on spending." Mitch McConnell just said rising federal deficits and debt is not the Republican’s fault but the deficit is caused by unwillingness to contain spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Here are key realities of Social Security that everyone should know:
Reality #1: Social Security is an essential form of insurance. It provides support for young families in the event of the death or disability of its breadwinners. It helps children with severe disabilities. It insures workers against old age, disability, or dying and leaving behind a survivor without adequate income. As a retirement benefit, Social Security is worth about $300,000 for the average household. Equally important, its benefits are guaranteed. In contrast, 401(k) returns are not guaranteed.
Reality #2: Social Security and Medicare benefit all workers, whether white-, pink-, or blue-collar. In 2012, 55 million Americans (out of a population of 313 million) cashed Social Security checks. These were members of all segments of society— rich and poor, left and right. Economist Moshe Milevsky makes this clear in his excellent book Your Money Milestones: A Guide to Making the 9 Most 102 Important Financial Decisions of Your Life. He writes that all households, rich and poor, have the government as an economic partner.
We all pay taxes, and we all receive benefits from it. Through our votes, we exercise some control over how that money is spent. So no matter what your political leanings are or what your tax bracket is, the government is part of your financial life and always will be. This is equally true for the corporate CEO, the small business owner, and the starving artist.
Reality #3: Social Security is on sound financial footing. In fact, it’s a lean and efficient success. In 2015, its administrative expenses (as a percentage of all Social Security spending) were less than .7%, compare that with the average 401(k), which has expenses three times as high – which can erode lifetime benefits considerably by 20-30%.
Any clear-sighted look at Social Security’s finances, free of politically motivated spin, shows that the program is in strong shape. It has a reserve fund to pay all benefits until 2034 without any change in current policy. And with some small policy changes—for instance, raising the payroll tax by 2.83 percentage points (shared between employer and employee) or eliminating the earnings cap—we could put the system in balance for the next 75 years. (The earning cap means that only wage income up to a certain ceiling is currently subject to Social Security taxes. In 2019, it will be $132,900, but that figure will rise in response to wage inflation.) We are easily poised to keep the system healthy well into the future.
The rising federal deficits will surely lead to political efforts next year to cut spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid if nothing changes. Vote.