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Columns - Means-testing could save Social Security

In this current budget-cutting frenzy, it is a frightening prospect for millions of senior citizens and their loved ones that Social Security could become Social Insecurity.

So many oldsters are living on fixed incomes. It would be disastrous for them if those monthly payments would be cut by even 5 or 10 percent. Some seniors, even now, are finding it almost impossible to buy nutritious foods as grocery prices keep spiraling way out of control.

Why are some axe-wielders eyeing Social Security in the first place? They talk as if it's this big bloated turkey ready for carving; a prime cause of our national budget deficit. The fact is the Social Security program is now solvent and will be solvent for the next 20 years, at least. That's according to the American Association of Retired People and many other budget-watchdog agencies.

However, it is true that changes will have to be made in the program. Back in the 1980s, a bipartisan effort led by President Ronald Reagan and Democrat Tip O'Neill tweaked Social Security, raising the retirement age slightly. That move was universally hailed as a good change.

As more and more baby boomers retire with relatively fewer younger people in the work force, the Social Security program is bound to be in big trouble come three of four decades from now. Good as that solution was, it is unreasonable - even cruel in some cases - to keep upping the retirement age.

The best way to prevent future insolvency is to make Social Security a means-tested program so that individuals whose annual income from various sources exceeds, say, $100,000 will not receive Social Security payments.

There is a long-standing assumption that those who've paid Social Security taxes all their lives should, of course, receive payments throughout their retirement years until they die. But why should we make that assumption? After all, Social Security was meant as an "insurance" program, to be paid to those who need it. How many thousands of dollars have we all paid for auto insurance or health insurance, and we never see a penny of it back unless we have a vehicle accident or a health problem? Why should Social Security be any different?

Social Security began in the depth of the Great Depression, in 1935, when the U.S. Congress approved it as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At that time, so many older and/or disabled Americans had no safety nets at all to keep them from utter destitution and death. Since its inception, Social Security has kept an estimated 40 percent of elderly Americans out of abject poverty. Who can deny it is one of the most effective and humane programs ever devised in world history?

Recently, more legislators on both sides of the aisle are broaching the subject of means-testing for Social Security and for Medicare. It's about time. It is the one sure way to save those two excellent programs.

The surest way not to save Social Security is by "privatizing" it, as some reckless legislators are suggesting. Instead of paying Social Security taxes, individuals would be able to invest that money elsewhere. One need only to recall the near melt-down on Wall Street to understand instantly the folly of the "privatization" scheme, which is yet another ruse to allow some of those greedy, unscrupulous gamblers to play recklessly with the little guys' money. Saving and investing wisely are obviously good things to do, but they're never risk-free.

By making Social Security subject to means-testing, the program will be preserved for generations of future Americans. That one smart move should end, once and for all, this lunatic notion of privatization.

Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at