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Calls for Social Security Expansion Grow Louder in Washington

The New York Times

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jana Panarites was about to make a midlife career shift in 2010 when her father died. At age 50, she had completed a master’s degree in cultural diplomacy at the University of Southern California and was looking for a position in the nonprofit sector. That plan ground to a halt when she moved back to Maryland, where she grew up, to take care of her mother.

“Like a lot of caregivers, I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “I wound up spending so much time taking care of her, there was no time to take care of myself, let alone produce an income.”

Ms. Panarites has no regrets about the three years she spent caring for her mother, who now lives in an assisted-living facility in Florida. On the contrary, she said, “it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”

But the detour damaged not just her career prospects but her future retirement security as well. Her annual Social Security income — projected at $18,500 if she files for benefits when she reaches full retirement age in 2026 — will be at least 20 percent less than she could have expected had she not left the work force, according to a rough estimate from the Social Security Administration.

A growing number of legislators and policy makers would like Ms. Panarites and other caregivers to receive some relief as part of a broader effort to expand and modernize Social Security benefits…

The combined trust funds for Social Security’s retirement and disability benefits are projected to be depleted in 2034, according to the annual report of the program’s trustees. At that point, Social Security itself would have sufficient revenue from current taxes to pay only 79 percent of promised benefits.

That problem could be avoided if Congress agreed to raise additional revenue, impose benefit cuts or do some combination of the two.

Some targeted expansion recommendations come from centrist camps. For example, a recently issued report on retirement security by the Bipartisan Policy Center called for adjusting Social Security’s progressive benefit structure to deliver higher amounts to lower-income retirees. The changes would increase benefits by $176 a month to the median recipient who files at full retirement age — an increase of 10 percent on a $1,700 benefit.

The policy center called for lifting Social Security’s minimum benefit for very-low-income seniors, and enhancing the program’s survivor benefit. Currently, widows and widowers receive either their own benefit or 100 percent of a deceased spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher; under the BPC.’s proposal, survivors would receive their own benefit plus 75 percent of their deceased spouse’s benefit.

At the same time, the center recommended two across-the-board benefit cuts: gradually raising the normal retirement age and adopting a less generous annual cost-of-living adjustment.

“We’re really trying to show solutions that can emerge when you put people with very different ideological perspectives in a room and let them negotiate for two years,” said Shai Akabas, director of fiscal policy at the center.

KEYWORDS: COMMISSION ON RETIREMENT SECURITY AND PERSONAL SAVINGS, SHAI AKABAS, SOCIAL SECURITY, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION