We’re all out to save the world. Whether we’re political activists pulling for our candidate or advocates on behalf of [insert disenfranchised group here], or are actually trying to save the world from global warming, Yale students are by no means short on engagement. Despite coming of age in an era rife with pessimistic proclamations of melting ice caps and nuclear winter, we exude an optimism which motivates us to do our part to better our future. Yet there is one issue that we dreadfully neglect: Social Security.
The Social Security Trust Fund works like this: Taxes go directly from your income to a trust fund; the interest from that fund pays a monthly dividend to all Americans over the age of 65; the dividend is determined by some arcane formula based on an individual’s average peak earnings over the course of a lifetime. The problem is that the next generation of retirees, the baby boomers, is the largest generation in recent history. As a result, the trust fund is facing a potential extinction. In about 2018, the fund will start paying out more than it is taking in. By 2040, the trust fund likely will be bankrupt. Empty.
Why should we care? I thought Social Security was for old people. This misconception is the root of the problem. Guess what: Someday, we, too, will be old. Despite our foresight on issues such as global warming, we can’t seem to get our heads around an issue that could have an equally devastating impact on our future well-being. Maybe it’s a problem of distance. We can walk into Nature and lament its disappearance; we can walk down Dixwell and decry poverty; but it’s nearly impossible to imagine ourselves as old, feeble individuals struggling to pay for rising drug prices while trying to feed ourselves.
The truth is, most, if not all of us, will probably not end up in that boat. If we’re so passionate in our attempts to address economic injustice — each day, for instance, Yalies give up oh-so-valuable time to tutor inner-city kids — then why such deafening silence on this equally important issue? Working to prevent the future poverty of those less fortunate than us in our generation isn’t necessarily the kind of tangible goal that will make us feel good about ourselves; but make no mistake, it’s a cause worth fighting for whether our consciences say so or not.
Don’t get me wrong: The environment, public education, poverty, etc. are incredibly important issues and our involvement with these problems is an essential part of the solution. But these are all issues in which we are part of a coalition. Social Security has no such coalition; it has no celebrity spokesman, billion-dollar foundations or crusading politicians. The only group politically engaged in the Social Security issue is the American Association of Retired People. However, the current AARP crowd will be long gone by the time their benefits run out; all they ask is that nothing is done to affect their benefits now.
The political result of this is politicians spewing empty rhetoric, decrying the crisis but only offering words of reassurance to the AARPies that they’ll be fine. A good example of this is Hillary Clinton’s Social Security “plan.” She calls for a blue ribbon commission to “study” the issue, or, in laymen’s terms, to sit around for a few weeks and then tell us what we already know: We have hard choices to make. Do we increase the payroll taxes which right now are capped at $90,000 a year, amounting to a middle-class tax increase? Do we raise the retirement age? Do we change the way we allocate benefits? All of these potential solutions have fierce opponents who are doing what almost all politically engaged groups do: looking out for themselves.
The problem is that we need to become fierce opponents of the status quo. We need to educate ourselves about the problem and the potential solutions (tax increases, private accounts or, my favorite, the Automatic IRA). Then we need to let our voices be heard: Imagine what would happen if the next time Obama spoke at a college campus he was waylaid by hundreds of college kids dressed as senior citizens asking tough policy questions about entitlements? When politicians come around courting our vote, we should demand a plan for our financial future and the future of our generation.