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June 30, 2020

Our Entitlement Crisis

Major demographic shifts spell looming disaster for the biggest “earned” entitlements.

Our nation’s biggest “earned” entitlement programs — the ones workers supposedly pay into over a lifetime — are unsustainable. That’s not news unless you care about what the future holds for our children and grandchildren.

Let’s start with some recent findings from the Census Bureau, which serve as a one-two punch for entitlement solvency. As The Washington Times reports, “The 65-and-older population grew in the past decade by a whopping 13.8 million people, or 34.2%, driving up the national median age from 37.2 years in 2010 to 38.4 years in 2019.” At the same time, “The number of those younger than 14 has dropped by 1.1% since 2010, part of what the bureau described as ‘the slow decline of the younger population.’”

So as our elderly population is growing, the generations meant to subsidize their retirement and healthcare benefits are shrinking.

Fiscal hawks have been sounding the alarm for years that our two main entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, at least in their current form, are doomed. We all have a general sense of the vitals: When FDR signed Social Security into law in 1935, the retirement age was 65 and the life expectancy was 63. Today’s numbers are 67 and 84, respectively. Furthermore, while we used to have 16 workers for each retiree in 1950, we now have fewer than three.

And those three load-bearing workers of today? They’ll be down to 2.2 in 2035, provided our profligate Congress doesn’t accelerate the trend by giving our already overmatched labor force even more reasons not to work. Of course, paying folks to stay home is precisely what nearly every Democrat (and some Republicans) have been doing ever since FDR’s New Deal policies prolonged our nation’s Great Depression misery.

As Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner noted in 2018, “This year, the [Social Security] system’s trustees pegged its official ‘insolvency’ date at 2034, the same as in last year’s report. … And unless something changes dramatically between now and then, current law will require benefits to be slashed by 21 percent at that point.” Tanner continues, “Medicare is in even worse shape. This year’s trustees’ report estimates that the health-care program for seniors will hit technical insolvency by 2026, three years sooner than last year’s estimate. The program’s worsening financial condition is traced to ‘higher-than-anticipated spending in 2017, legislation that increases hospital spending,’ and higher payments to private Medicare Advantage plans.”

Our entitlement programs may not be Ponzi schemes in the purest sense, but they certainly have some Ponziesque qualities. But whereas Ponzi’s pyramid collapsed when he ran out of new investors, our government has by law an endless stream of new investors along with an ability to maintain the system by reducing benefits or charging higher taxes, or both. And as Nobel economics laureate Paul Samuelson once wrote, “A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.”

Unfortunately, we’re no longer a growing nation — at least not where it counts. And this means that the shape of our entitlement pyramid, with our labor force at the bottom and the retirees at the top, looks a lot less stable than it did a few decades ago.

And so, to put a twist on Leon Trotsky (of all people), you may not be interested in our looming entitlement crisis, but it’s interested in you.

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