Social Security Comments Won’t Disqualify Perry

Comparing America’s public pension system to a “Ponzi scheme” doesn’t at all diminish the Texas governor’s election prospects.

Political commentators who are writing off Texas governor Rick Perry as unelectable because of the controversial comments he made about Social Security are making a serious mistake. Perry’s frankness, in fact, could help him garner support among moderate Republican voters who otherwise regard his populist style warily.

Perry, the frontrunner among Republican presidential hopefuls, suggested in a book he authored last year that Social Security, America’s public pension system, was unconstitutional because it infringed on the powers traditionally reserved to the states.

During last week’s debate of Republican presidential candidates, Perry stood by that opinion and added that it was “a monstrous lie” for defenders of the program to pretend that it may be available to future generations in its present form. “Young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age — that is just a lie,” he said.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Perry’s foremost contender, criticized that statement. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security,” he said. His campaign is chastising Perry for comparing Social Security to a “Ponzi scheme” but hasn’t quite explained yet how Romney would avert the imminent insolvency of the program.

The Social Security trust fund is projected by its trustees to last until 2036. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, it won’t be exhausted before 2040 but once the fund is depleted, the annual payroll taxes that pay for the program will only be sufficient to cover 75 percent of the retirement benefits that it is required to pay seniors.

In 2010, Social Security spent $49 billion more in benefits that it took in from its payroll tax. This year, the program will likely spend $733 billion or one-fifth of the federal budget with a $46 billion deficit. Between today and 2085, the pension program’s trustees estimate a total shortfall of $9.1 trillion.

Some 56 million Americans receive Social Security benefits this year. When the program was created in 1935, the earliest retirement age was 65 — one year above the average life expectancy. Although Americans grow much older on average now, beneficiaries can begin collecting at 62 and might well live in retirement for up to two decades.

Meanwhile, the base of support from workers paying into the system has shrunk dramatically. In 1950, there were sixteen active workers paying for every retiree. Today, the ratio is three to one and there will be even fewer workers compared to seniors in years to come.

Little wonder that six out of ten American workers last year said not to expect Social Security to be able to pay them benefits when they retire. Among working Americans under the age of 35, the number was even higher. 76 percent of them do not expect to draw a Social Security check when they stop working.

Meanwhile, this year, two out of three Americans recognize that entitlement programs like Social Security are bankrupting the nation. Just 7 percent of people questioned in a USA Today/Gallup poll in April believe that social welfare programs will not create a crisis for America in the foreseeable future.

Democrats, so far, have resisted entitlement reform. After Republicans in April voted to privatize Medicare, which finances health care for seniors, and replace it with a subsidy, Democrats pledged to defend the “bedrock promises” of social insurance.

After the chairmen of a fiscal commission created by the president by study long-term solutions to the nation’s debt crisis proposed to raise the retirement age by one month every two years once it has reached 67 under current law to achieve up to $4 trillion in savings, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told NBC News that Social Security was “not in crisis. This is something that’s perpetuated by people who don’t like government,” he added. “Social Security is fine.”

Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives, agreed. “We’re not going to balance the budget on the backs of Social Security beneficiaries,” he told CBS News in February. President Barack Obama has even vowed to preserve Social Security “forever.” He denounced privatization as “an ill conceived idea that would add trillions of dollars to our budget deficit while tying [people’s] benefits to the whims of Wall Street traders and the ups and downs of the stock market.”

Mitt Romney’s views aren’t radically different from those of many Democrats. Although he supported a Bush Administration effort to privatize Social Security for the wealthy in 2007, he promised to “keep it working for millions of Americans” on Wednesday night.

Opinion polls taken over the weekend suggest that Governor Perry’s popularity among Republican primary voters hasn’t suffered as a consequence of his debate performance.

Nationally, a majority of voters would rather keep Social Security as it is even if they recognize that that’s impossible. Among conservatives, however, support for a federally funded and federally regulated welfare program has always been lukewarm at best. Even if Republicans like to receive Social Security benefits in their old age, they are ideologically opposed to the program’s very existence.

Centrist Republicans may not necessarily agree with Perry’s opposition to Social Security — although he’s indicted that he won’t abolish it altogether — but they do appreciate his fortitude and candor especially contrasted against Romney’s apparent willingness to take whatever opinion is popular. His many “flip flops” are infamous whereas Perry is standing by his earlier comments. Conservatives like that. The country, though, may not.