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Special Report

Myths and Truths About Social Security

Exploding 5 misconceptions that threaten the system

Myth No. 3: In 1983, Congress made changes to Social Security to build a fund that would pay for boomers when they retire, so it's not fair to change benefits now. No, Congress did not intend to "advance fund" the boomers, according to a study of the record by Charles Blahous of Stanford University's Hoover Institution. It raised taxes and cut some future benefits to cure an imminent insolvency. The trust fund reserves — now $2.6 trillion — were a by-product of the decisions made. Congress never veered from its vision of intergenerational compact: Working people pay for those who don't, or can't, work anymore. On the flip side, the compact requires older people to make some concessions so that younger people can afford it.

Myth No. 4: You should get out of Social Security the amount you put in. No. Social Security is not an individual investment program (see Myth  No. 2). Your taxes paid for the earlier generation of retirees. Current workers are paying for you. The total amount of your benefit depends on how much you earned, whether you get a spousal benefit, when you retire and how long you live.

Myth No. 5: Social Security helps old people, not younger people like me. Wrong. It provides income support to qualified widows and widowers with young children, as well as orphans. Just as important, it saves young families from the cost of supporting older parents who, without Social Security, wouldn't have enough money to live on. It also provides benefits for workers who become disabled.

My final point … and it isn't a myth, it's a fact. If young people switched their payroll taxes into private accounts, the government would have to borrow $6.5 trillion or more (depending on the details) to keep paying out benefits to current retirees.

That means higher deficits, higher income taxes, further slashes in spending, or all three. It's smarter — and cheaper — to fix the current program and put everyone's mind at rest.

You may also like: Early retirement and spousal benefits.

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and the author of  Making the Most of Your Money NOW. She writes regularly for the Bulletin.


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