Is Social Security worth saving? Most Americans seem to think so— and most are willing to pay slightly higher taxes to keep it solvent.

A poll conducted last fall by the National Academy of Social Insurance indicated 72 percent of Americans want benefits increased. And 69 percent of Republicans, along with 84 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independents, support that position.

President George W. Bush pushed the “privatization” of Social Security, but after what happened to Enron and other corporations with top executives who used 401-K plans and other employee retirement funds to furnish their own lavish lifestyles, fewer Americans trust that concept. A single crooked fund manager could take down hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers with a scheme gone sour, and the justice system offers little incentive to pay it straight. Many people would risk getting caught and spending a few years in a federal prison if billions in stolen pension dollars awaited them in the Caymans.

Several problems are at work, the most serious being Congress’ perpetual habit of robbing Peter to pay Paul – or robbing Social Security to pay for their pet projects. And since the American electorate seems disinclined to punish these criminals at the polls, it’s likely they’ll continue their thievery. Social Security is the only money they can count on without raising taxes steeply, which won’t happen. And holding out hope that these “public servants” will pass a measure to save them from themselves is breathtakingly naive.

Regardless of whatever atrocities the executive and legislative branches visit upon an ignorant or apathetic public today, or 10 or 15 years down the road, the government is obliged to keep its word to the folks who have, for decades, seen their paychecks skimmed for Social Security. That may mean waiting another year for retirement – for young people just now coming into the system, not those who have been there for years – or it may mean more modest cost-of-living increases. Or, heaven forbid, it may mean removing the cap from taxation on higher-level earnings. In any case, it can’t mean dismantling Social Security, unless Americans are willing to let untold thousands of elders starve to death. We’re not, so we’d be obliged to put them on some other kind of entitlement program.

A tighter control over who gets disability benefits will also be necessary. Just last week, Congress delayed an infusion of cash from the part of Social Security that funds retirement to the part that funds disability. The disability fund is set to run dry next year, while the retirement part could last another couple of decades. Although this refusal to act was seen as a back-door move to kill Social Security altogether, it might make some sense to older workers who believe the growing ranks of the disabled will threaten their own retirements.

The fear is understandable, since the disabled rolls are burgeoning, and not necessarily because more people are disabled. Some states, in their desperation to get residents off their welfare rosters, have hired companies that specialize in moving these folks onto the federal disability rolls. About a quarter of Tennessee residents are on disability, and other states report similar figures. It’s easy to see why many people suspect fraud is rampant.

Few want to face it, but if disability rolls continue to swell, a tipping point will arrive soon when more people will be receiving disability benefits than are holding down jobs. At that juncture, those in the workforce will no longer be able to shoulder the burden without being taxed into oblivion. Another elephant in the room is the fraud in the disability ranks – people who could work in some capacity, but choose not to. If they aren’t identified, those who are truly disabled will be forced to subsist on ever-shrinking allotments. That scenario is unjust and unthinkable.

Disabled people should be assessed occasionally to make sure they are unable to work – not just because of fraud, but because some conditions aren’t permanent. Many disabled folks would also like to see more money invested in rehabilitation programs so they can resume working; that’s a good idea, too.

If Americans need any more convincing to put pressure on their representatives, they need to remember those they’ve elected to the “entitlement class” have the best health care our money can buy, and the best retirement, too. And most of those people aren’t worth a plugged nickel.

—Tahlequah Daily Press

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