Given the many competing demands on the nation's limited resources, how high should increasing Social Security benefits be on the priority list?
Very high indeed, according to Democratic progressives. That's why both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have embraced a version of the proposal in their campaigns for president.
Now comes President Obama with a declaration last week in favor of "increas[ing] its benefits so that today's retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they've earned." Thus did Obama finally capitulate to Democratic critics who never quite forgave his previous willingness to trim Social Security cost-of-living increases.
Except that there would not necessarily be anything progressive about an across-the-board Social Security increase, even one paid for by imposing the payroll tax on wages and salaries above the current $118,500 maximum, as the Democrats suggest. The program requires that much of what higher earners pay in higher contributions would have to be returned to them as higher benefits. An analysis by the Third Way think tank of Sanders' Social Security-boosting plan, the most aggressive, found that it would confer five times more money on the top 20 percent of earners than on the bottom 20 percent.
Clinton has proposed more limited benefit expansion, for widows and for those who took significant time out of the paid workforce to care for children. Even that proposal, however, is not targeted to the neediest in each category.
By all means, impose payroll taxes on more earnings, but additional payroll taxes should be used to extend the trust fund, thus stabilizing overall federal finances. Benefit increases, if any, should be targeted to the very poorest elderly.
In truth, people 65 and over are less likely than the general public to live in poverty — and only half as likely to live in poverty as children under 18, according to the Census Bureau. They have higher average income (from all sources) than their counterparts in all but one other industrialized democracy, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Yet the federal government spends six times as much on the elderly as it does on children. Children can't vote.
The Washington Post Writers Group.