Social Security:

Long-Term Financing Shortfall Drives Need for Reform

GAO-02-845T: Published: Jun 19, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2002.

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Social Security not only represents the foundation of our retirement income system; it also provides millions of Americans with disability insurance and survivor's benefits. Although the Social Security Trustees now project that under the intermediate or "best estimate" assumptions the combined Social Security Trust Funds will be exhausted 3 years later than in last year's estimates, the magnitude of the long-term funding shortfall is virtually unchanged. Without reform, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are unsustainable, and the long-term impact of these entitlement programs on the federal budget and the economy will be dramatic. Social Security reform is part of a larger and significant fiscal and economic challenge. Absent reform, the nation will ultimately have to choose between persistent, escalating federal deficits, significant tax increases, or dramatic budget cuts. Focusing on trust fund solvency alone is not sufficient. Aiming for sustainable solvency would increase the chance that future policymakers would not have to face, on a recurring basis, the difficult questions of whether the government will have the capacity to pay future claims or what else will have to be squeezed to pay those claims. Comparing the beneficiary impact of reform proposals solely to current Social Security promised benefits is inappropriate since all current promised benefits are not funded over the longer term. Reform proposals should be evaluated as packages. If the focus is on the pros and cons of each element of reform, it may prove impossible to build the bridges necessary to achieve consensus. Acting sooner rather than later helps to ease the difficulty of change. Waiting until Social Security faces an immediate solvency crisis will limit the scope of feasible solutions and could reduce the options field to only those choices that are the most difficult and could also delay the really tough decisions on Medicare and Medicaid.

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