Social Security:

Analysis of Issues and Selected Reform Proposals

GAO-03-376T: Published: Jan 15, 2003. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2003.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
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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 survivors' benefits. As a result, Social Security provides benefits that are critical to the current and future well-being of tens of millions of Americans. However, the system faces both solvency and sustainability challenges in the longer term. In their 2002 report, the Trustees emphasized that while the program's near-term financial condition has improved slightly, Social Security faces a substantial financial challenge in the not-too-distant future that needs to be addressed soon. In essence, the program's long-term outlook remains 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. Over the past few years, a wide array of proposals has been put forth to restore Social Security's long-term solvency, and a commission established by the President has presented three models for modifying the current program. The Commission's final report called for a period of discussion lasting at least a year before legislative action is taken to strengthen and restore sustainability to Social Security. We have also done a qualitative review of three other proposals introduced in the 107th Congress.

Our Social Security challenge is more urgent than it may appear. Failure to take remedial action will, in combination with other entitlement spending, lead to a situation unsustainable both for the federal government and, ultimately, the economy. This problem is about more than finances. It is also about maintaining an adequate safety net for American workers against loss of income from retirement, disability, or death; Social Security provides a foundation of retirement income for millions of Americans and has prevented many former workers and their families from living their retirement years in poverty. As the Congress considers proposals to restore the long-term financial stability and viability of the Social Security system, it also needs to consider the impact of the potential changes on different types of beneficiaries. Moreover, while addressing Social Security reform is important and will not be easy, Medicare presents a much greater, more complex, and even more urgent fiscal challenge.

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