Virginia Reno of the National Academy of Social Insurance speaks at a Social Security forum in Springfield Township. She said the benefits are the main source of income for many of those who get them.
With the baby boom generation starting to reach retirement age, representatives and local seniors gathered Thursday to discuss the fate of Social Security.
The Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans and the Alliance of Informed Citizens of Northwest Ohio held a forum at the WPOS-FM Christian Center in Springfield Township before an audience of about 80 -- most of whom were seniors -- to explain the Social Security system and to speculate about its future.
The forum, which lasted more than five hours, included three speakers, personal testimonials, and group workshops.
"Clearly, something needs to be done to make sure we can pay 100 percent of whatever is promised in the law," said Virginia Reno, the keynote speaker and vice president of income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance. "It's important for policy makers to recognize that [Social Security] benefits are the main source of income for the large majority of the people who get them."
Ms. Reno said 45 percent of seniors rely on Social Security to stay out of poverty, and that for one in three in the program, it represents 90 percent or more of their income.
But as baby boomers become eligible for the program and with life expectancy on the rise, the system will have to support more people for longer periods of time without more people in the work force putting funds into the system.
Still, Ms. Reno said she did not believe the government would default on Social Security payments even if politicians say economic decisions might harm that system.
"The federal government is not going to default, but there is no limit to the games that people will play in trying to frighten the other side into backing down," she said.
"In the past, there has never been any question on the fact that the Social Security would be paid," added Web Phillips, senior Social Security adviser to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "[Politicians] are playing games, trying to scare folks."
Mr. Phillips said Social Security is an "entitlement" funded fully by contributions the workers and employers make themselves before retirement.
With the increasing pressure on the system, however, Ms. Reno said the program might undergo drastic changes. She suggested increasing benefits at age 85 or 90, when people are at risk of having used up their own resources.
Predictions of the fate of Social Security 75 years into the future have a large margin for error, Ms. Reno said. By the lowest cost prediction, the system could continue as is, but by the high margin prediction, funds would be depleted seven years too soon. To compensate, the retirement age could be raised or benefits cut.
"Some people say, 'Let's keep Social Security financed the way it always has been,' " Ms. Reno said. "Others say Social Security contributes to the common good by more than what it does for its beneficiaries and should be drawn from broader sources such as income."
Norman Wernet, event moderator, state director of Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans, and Ohio Alliance Education Fund Organizer, said he agreed that Social Security works for the local economy and added that the administrative costs are less than one cent of every dollar spent on the program.
One solution to the shortfall, Ms. Reno said, would be to increase the percentage of income workers and employers pay into the system each year over the next 20 years, or to raise the cap on annual payments that limit the amount the richest employees put into the system -- with people who make more than $1 million a year providing 5 percent of their income.
This year, the cap was $106,800.
A recent survey showed most Americans are willing to pay more during their working years to ensure Social Security benefits continue. "An overwhelming majority of people agreed they don't mind paying for it," Ms. Reno said. "This is true of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents."
Thomas Kleparek, 67, a native Toledoan who attended the forum, called it "very informative" but added he wished the media would help shed more light on some of the myths associated with the Social Security system.
In addition to seeking to clarify some of these myths and predict changes for the future, Mr. Phillips discussed changes made to the system throughout its history. For example in 1956, cash benefits for disabilities were first introduced and the retirement age was lowered from 65 to 62 for women.
The United States Social Security system was introduced in 1935 by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration as part of the New Deal.
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