The country’s aging population presents a long-term threat to the Social Security program, one that will require action from Congress to avoid cuts to benefits.
“Expenses are going to be greater than revenues” as more people retire and the number of working people shrinks, said Michael McGuinness, associate professor of economics and business at Saint Anselm College.
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, who represents New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, has cosponsored a bill that aims to keep the Social Security trust funded through the year 2100 by taxing all earnings at the same rate, Kuster said, instead of subjecting only the first $142,800 of a person’s income to the payroll tax that funds Social Security.
U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, a Democrat representing the 1st District, supports this proposal but does not favor other changes to Social Security.
Taxing all earnings at the same rate would produce enough revenue for another 80 years of Social Security, Kuster said.
“We don’t want people to work their whole life only to live in poverty during their retirement,” Kuster said. “This plan that we’ve laid out would ensure the solvency of Social Security through 2100.”
Kuster’s Republican challenger, Steve Negron, said he wanted to preserve Social Security as it exists now for people who already are retired or who will retire in a few years but said he is open to raising the retirement age or changing benefits for younger workers.
“I don’t have all those answers,” Negron said. “It’s going to take a lot of education on my part.”
Kuster said she opposed such changes to Social Security, as do her fellow Democrats, Rep. Chris Pappas and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Shaheen said she wanted to make it more difficult for Congress to change the Social Security program in the future by requiring a supermajority to change retirees’ benefits.
In the shorter term, some policymakers outside New Hampshire have called for changes to Social Security as part of efforts to decrease the federal government’s debt, but no candidates running here support such proposals as part of deficit reduction.
Shaheen said she is against any efforts to privatize the administration of Social Security and opposes using the Social Security trust fund to pay for other government obligations or to pay down the country’s debt.
Benefit off limits, most say
Bryant “Corky” Messner, Shaheen’s opponent, said he wanted Congress to cut other areas of the budget before making changes to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age or providing benefits only to poorer seniors.
Messner said he would trim spending in defense, homeland security, health and human services and education before looking at Social Security.
“Unless and until we show some discipline in our discretionary spending, I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about any of that,” Messner said.
Matt Mowers, the Republican running against Pappas, said he did not want Social Security benefits to be cut in any drive to reduce the federal deficit.
Although threats to the Social Security trust fund predate the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008 recession, Mowers said he thought an economic recovery would make the Social Security trust fund solvent again.
“That’s going to be the simplest way to make sure it’s solvent, is to get more people working,” Mowers said.
Mowers said he did not think the situation was urgent enough to warrant discussing such changes to Social Security as raising the retirement age or paying benefits only to poorer retirees.
Negron said he could support such policies.
Pappas said he opposed proposals to save money by only giving Social Security benefits to the poor.
“When you start means-testing benefits, it becomes a program that’s only there for a certain group,” which makes it easier to cut, he said.
For retirees who do not have pensions and adequate savings, Social Security is becoming a more important part of retirement income, as fewer employers give their workers pensions and people are less able to save, said Karen Conway, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire.
She said economists and policymakers widely agree that Social Security and Medicare have made older Americans better off.
McGuinness, the Saint Anselm professor, said Social Security was likely to be vital to baby boomers retiring without pensions and many without much savings.
“My generation on the whole is undersaved when it comes to retirement,” McGuinness said. “It’s going to be an issue for more than a few people.”