Millennials Huge Stake in Social Security

Social Security was built to last. It works and works well for all generations.

Social Security transformed old age in America. Through wars and peace, booms and busts, its modest but vital benefits, averaging just $16,000 in 2015, are paid on time and with great efficiency.

When the economy crashed in 2007-8, many Americans lost jobs, value in homes, employer pensions and savings. No one lost their monthly Social Security benefits. Remarkably efficient, a little less than 1 percent of its expenditures goes for administration, with the rest going for benefits. (Hmm, imagine what Wall Street would extract in fees if they could get their hands on our Social Security.)

By far the most important life insurance families have for their young children and spouses, Social Security also is the nation's most significant disability insurance. Nearly every millennial has already benefited, first because their parents earned these protections for them, and will also benefit as workers, parents and/or spouses.

Actuaries estimate that Social Security provides the equivalent of life and disability insurance protections worth about $630,000 and $610,000, respectively, to a 30-year-old worker with average earnings, a spouse and two young children.

Early in life, most of us can't imagine ever needing these life and disability benefits. But the sobering reality, according to the Social Security Administration, is one in four 20 year olds will be disabled and one in eight will die before age 67.

Social Security also puts shared values into action -- caring for parents, children, neighbors and selves; responsibility to work hard and, if we do, the right to reap benefit from that work; human dignity. No surprise then that the vast majority of all demographic and political groups -- Democrats, Republicans, union households, Tea Party households, seniors, young adults -- greatly value Social Security.

When it comes to the future of Social Security, millennials have more at stake than their parents and grandparents. Proposed cuts (e.g., raising the retirement age, changing the way benefits are calculated) would fall most heavily on them.

But don't believe Social Security is unaffordable, that it's going broke. Social Security has three streams of income, two ongoing no matter what:contributions from the earnings of workers, by far the largest; income from treating some Social Security benefits as taxable; and interest paid on treasury obligations held by Social Security's trusts funds. Today's Social Security expenditures represent only 5.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and will be roughly 6.2 percent of GDP in 2035 and about the same until the end of the century.

Expanding Social Security protections is fully affordable. Doing so is not a function of economics or demographics, but of our values and political will. If Congress passed legislation requiring millionaires and billionaires to make the same payroll contribution of 6.2 percent on all their earnings (just like everyone earning under $118,500 does today), roughly four-fifths of the projected shortfall would disappear overnight -- more if interest and dividend income were counted. And there are many other reasonable revenue changes that would provide resources for expanding benefits, today and tomorrow.

So, yes, Social Security works. If millennials want, Social Security can work even better for them, their children and grandchildren, addressing the retirement income crisis by increasing today's modest but vital benefits, adding paid family and sick leave, providing better protection against inflation, strengthening its funding and more.

Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-founder of Social Security Works is a candidate for the House of Representatives in New York's 24th Congressional District. His most recent book (co-authored with Nancy J. Altman), is "Social Security Works: Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and Why Expanding It will Help Us All."

This article originally ran in the ASBURY PARK PRESS under the title "Don't buy argument that it's going broke."