Report Targets Social Security Reform 

By:  Associated Press
The Washington Post, December 10, 2001


Social Security reform should aim to boost the entire economy, not just the program's future funding, a Congressional Budget Office report says on the eve of the last meeting of President Bush's commission.

The White House panel is finalizing proposals to overhaul the retirement system by letting younger workers invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. But those plans come at a price -- benefit cuts for most future retirees.

The commission also will offer a less painful option of allowing personal accounts without benefit cuts. But members warned that wouldn't fix Social Security's funding problems.

The CBO report released Monday examined three strategies that policy-makers have debated to shore up Social Security: personal accounts, saving government surpluses to pay down the national debt and modifications to the current system.

But the study was done before the terrorist attacks, which have imposed huge burdens on the federal budget. Hefty surpluses are no longer being projected, and domestic concerns such as Social Security are getting less attention.

``The exact timing of when Congress may be able to move Social Security legislation is clearly up in the air, but many in Congress do not think it can happen before the election,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

``Given the fact that we now have a recession and a war, that also could change the calendar for Social Security,'' he said.

Social Security is expected to start paying out more in benefits than it takes in from payroll taxes by 2016. But in a worst case, that date could be as early as 2011, CBO Director Dan Crippen said.

Social Security's trust fund is expected to be depleted in 2038. That trust fund, however, currently is being spent by the government, which must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow to pay back the fund to meet Social Security's obligations.

Personal accounts: The report said that using government funds to pay for the retirement accounts would not help the economy grow because it is essentially a money shift to the private sector. ``It's a wash,'' Crippen said.

The report also warns of the risks in stock market investing. The stock market ``is no panacea,'' it said. ``Corporate stocks deliver a higher expected return than government bonds because they carry higher risks.''

However, shifting government funds into private accounts could protect the money from politicians dipping into it in the future.

Debt reduction: That could help the economy grow by giving policy-makers more flexibility and easing the burden on an aging population and growing workers, the report said.

Changes to current system: Benefit cuts might encourage more people to save more, which could help stimulate the economy in the long term, the report said. Cuts would hurt initially, but later generations would likely earn higher wages and pay lower taxes.

Raising payroll taxes could help increase national saving if the money was not used for other purposes. But the report said the increase could reduce some people's incentive to work.



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