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Reform Social Security

Latinos have a big stake in the outcome of this policy fight.

By Rubén Navarrette
Ruben NavarretteAs the debate rages over how to reform Social Security, I suspect that the majority of Hispanics are like most Americans. When they read over the menu of possible remedies—from “privatizing” the system to “means testing” benefits or putting an end to “wage indexing” as the way that benefits are determined—their eyes glaze over.

What does it matter that politicos are busy churning out press releases in Spanish. For most Hispanics, it’s Greek.

But this debate isn’t really so complicated. What you have is a casita with a leaky roof. On one side, there are those who want to put in the effort to fix it before the storm clouds gather. On the other side, you have those who don’t want to do anything because, they insist, doing so would be costly and painful and, besides, it may never rain.

The first group includes President Bush, who insists that, unless something is done, young people (let’s say, anyone born after 1970) won’t see a dime of the money they’re contributing to the system. At present, workers contribute about 6.2 percent of earnings into the system. Employers match that. Bush wants to let workers siphon off part of their contribution and invest it in personal accounts that would offer a higher return that the government does.

The do-nothing defenders of the status quo insist that Social Security is in fine shape and that there is no crisis. And, they charge, what the Republicans really want to do is dismantle the nation’s most beloved entitlement program, provide a windfall for Wall Street and the rest of the private sector, and push senior citizens onto the streets and into soup kitchens.

Don’t laugh. That’s pretty much the line they’re pitching. Further, they want to come off like all they really care about is giving voice to the voiceless.

That’s where Hispanics come in. Consider the bilingual press release sent out earlier this year by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. In it, Reid insists, “Bush’s plan to cut benefits will be particularly damaging for the Hispanic community, which relies on Social Security … more than other Americans.”

It's an interesting argument. But it’s also disingenuous. What matters in all this isn’t dependence but demographics. Hispanics are above all a young population, especially when compared to the rest of the country. The average age of a Hispanic person in the United States is 25 years old. That’s almost 15 years younger than the white population. That means anything that hurts young people can be expected to take an especially high toll on the Hispanic population. And, make no mistake: The current system hurts young people.

Beginning in 2018, Social Security will begin taking in less money than it pays out in benefits. That will, over the next generation or two, lead to a shortfall of at least $3.5 trillion. Why? Because the ratio of workers to retirees is shrinking in America. Just after World War II, there were 16 workers supporting each retiree. Today, that ratio is 3 to 1. By 2030, with the retirement of nearly 70 million baby boomers, it will be less than two workers per retiree. Bush is right about future retirees being shortchanged. Young people know that. About 10 years ago, a survey found that more people in their teens and twenties believed in UFOs than expected to see their first Social Security check.

But here’s the important part: The payout is only half the story. What concerns me—and what should concern every single Hispanic person in this country—is the “pay-in.”

The real problem is what is in store for the average American worker over the next three or four decades just to keep the current system afloat: sky-high taxes. Economists and think tanks suggest that, if we do nothing, income taxes and payroll taxes combined could—for an average wage earner—soar to more than 50 percent in the next 10 to 20 years. So, for every dollar earned, the workers of the future will pocket less than 50 cents.

That’s money that won’t—over the next decade or two—be available to individuals to support families, pay for college, buy homes, pay for health care, or start small businesses. And that could make this generation of Hispanics the first in the history of this country to actually do worse than their parents.
There’s your crisis, folks.

And whether or not you can see it has a lot to do with how many candles are on your birthday cake. According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, the younger you are, the more likely you are to think the current system is broken and the more you like private accounts.

You see, the Social Security debate isn’t just more politics as usual. It’s generational warfare. And Hispanics are right in the middle of it. In fact, there is only one way to make it off the battlefield safely. Hispanics have to separate fact from fiction, reality from spin, and their own best interests from the interests of those who claim to represent them. Once they do that, the rest is easy.


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Copyright © 2004 Washington Republican National Hispanic Assembly
Last modified: 06/22/05