Social Security: What is at stake
How critical is Social Security to the people of New Hampshire? One AARP member in New Hampshire put it this way: "This is the only retirement for a large percentage of the population. These people have been working all their lives and if Social Security is not a guarantee their future is quite bleak." The facts back up his statement. • For six in 10 New Hampshire residents who are 65 and older, Social Security makes up 50 percent or more of their income. • More than one-third of Granite Staters in that age group would be living in poverty if they did not receive Social Security. • For almost three in 10 people over 65 in New Hampshire, Social Security is the only source of income. • People of all ages benefit from this program. Just over one-third of beneficiaries in New Hampshire are not retirees. They include the spouses and families of workers who become disabled or die prematurely, including more than 20,000 children who receive survivors' benefits.These statistics and all the personal stories behind them ought to frame the discussion. This is not simply a debate about numbers on a balance sheet, but about real people and how best to protect and strengthen this bedrock of financial security.Just as important, we ought to hang a sign on this discussion that says, "Open to the public." This is not a subject to be hammered out in secretive talks in Washington.In this election year and beyond, the discussion about Social Security needs to take place in communities in New Hampshire and across the country where people know first-hand how much this program means to them and their families.That's why AARP has launched "You've Earned a Say." We believe these conversations need to include your voice - and we want to make sure you have the information you need. This summer, our website will feature a policy option analysis by outside experts, from the National Academy of Social Insurance, Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation, highlighting both the pros and cons, without all the political jargon and spin.The conversation about Social Security also needs to be driven by facts. The Social Security trustees project that the program can pay full benefits for the next 20 years, and then about 75 percent of promised benefits after that.Social Security faces long-term financial challenges primarily because, as the overall U.S. population ages, contributions aren't keeping up with longer life expectancies.The longer it takes for Washington to strengthen Social Security and close the funding gap, the harder it will be for workers to plan for their future, and the more difficult the trade-offs that will be required.Also, the sooner we take the modest steps needed to shore up the program, the sooner we provide peace of mind to those who count on the program both now and in the future.Deliberations on the future of Social Security should unfold in the context of overall retirement security. Given the lack of personal savings, the decrease in defined benefit retirement plans, the decline in home values, the impact on seniors of high health care costs, and longer life spans, Social Security has become even more important.While Social Security is a lifeline for so many, the average benefit is just over $14,000 a year. The typical Granite State senior has an income of roughly $20,000 a year. It's important to understand the role that Social Security plays, not just for low income seniors but for most seniors, when you hear people talk about cutting benefits.Social Security is a safe haven amid economic storms. Benefits don't tumble when the stock market falls. Unlike most private pension plans, Social Security protects against inflation through cost-of-living adjustments. The program provides a guaranteed benefit over a lifetime -- no one will outlive his or her benefit no matter how long the person lives.Social Security is one of the most -- if not our most -- important and effective program, and you have earned a say. Let's make sure our elected officials in Washington hear an unmistakable message from us: protect and strengthen Social Security for today's seniors and future generations.David Certner is legislative policy director of AARP.