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Don't Cut Social Security -- Double It

Fiscal cliff chatter about slashing the venerable program ignores its fundamental potential and underlying strength.

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So both the private and public components of the U.S. pension system are under severe strain, as the Great Recession combined with pre-recession patterns of rising inequality and a diminishing social contract have taken their toll. With fewer workers covered by pensions, this leg of the three-legged stool of retirement security is too short -- and growing shorter.

Already Off the Cliff II: Home Ownership and Personal Savings

Now let's examine the second leg of retirement well-being, personal savings centered around homeownership. For tens of millions of Americans, security in their elderly years has been directly linked to the value of their homes. Yet the rupture of the housing bubble illustrated in dramatic fashion the danger of over-reliance upon ever-rising home values for retirement security.

The Federal Reserve has estimated that homeowners lost approximately $8 trillion in home equity during the Great Recession, a 53 percent drop in the overall value of the national homeownership stock. About 14 million Americans -- about 28 percent of all homeowners -- are still underwater today, owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth. These homeowners are, in effect, flat broke if they have no other accumulated savings or retirement vehicle (see Figure 6, which shows the percentage of mortgages that are underwater).

This has been devastating for Americans' retirement well-being because home ownership accounts for a large proportion of assets for so much of the population. As of 2008, only the top two income quartiles had accumulated enough equity from financial assets and pensions to weather the bursting housing bubble. The bottom 50 percent had not saved enough outside their homeownership to avoid severe wreckage to their retirement plans.

Thus, the second leg of the three-legged retirement stool has been broken down to a nub. And with home prices unlikely to recover soon, this loss in equity has significantly reduced the economic security of the lower and middle classes, which are less likely to have pensions and other assets such as private savings (beyond homeownership) to sustain them. Indeed, the bottom two income quartiles for those aged 65 and over depend on Social Security for at least 80 percent of their income, but even the second richest quartile still depends on Social Security for over 50 percent of its retirement income (see Figure 7).

In short, the collapse of the housing bubble when combined with the slow erosion of America's pension system has hacked away two of the three legs of the retirement stool. In the future, the vast majority of baby boomers and other retirees will be almost completely dependent on the single leg of Social Security for their retirement. The retirement stool no longer is stable and secure, and suddenly Social Security, which always has been viewed as a supplement to private savings, is the only leg left for hundreds of millions of Americans.

Financial experts say it will take a monthly retirement income of about 70 to 80 percent of pre-retirement income levels -- as well as $200,000 to $300,000 in personal savings -- for the average American to have a secure retirement. Yet most older Americans have saved only a fraction of that. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. About half of all Americans are at risk of not having sufficient retirement income, and three-fifths of low-income households are at risk of not having sufficient income to maintain their pre-retirement standards of living at age 65 (see Figure 9).

A single legged stool might be sufficient if that single leg was robust enough to stand on its own. But Social Security currently provides much less than the 70 to 80 percent of pre-retirement income needed to maintain pre-retirement standards of living. It is estimated to replace only about 33 to 40 percent of pre-retirement income for the average wage earner, compared to other nations like Germany or France where it replaces 70 percent (see Figure 10).

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