As the Baby Boomer Generation draws closer to retirement age, more and more questions are being raised about the fate of the Social Security program.
At an author event Sunday at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, co-sponsored by the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Pierre Epstein – the son of one of the premier architects of Social Security – talked about his father’s contributions to the federal program of social insurance and the future of Social Security.
Epstein is the author of a recent biography about his father’s life.
His father, Abraham, a poor Jewish immigrant from Russia who came to America for an education, is credited with coining the phrase “Social Security” and establishing the American Association for Old Age Security, an advocacy group he later renamed the American Association for Social Security.
Epstein said Abraham traveled the country “sowing the seeds of social insurance,” promoting old-age insurance as a precursor to unemployment assistance and other types of social insurance.
“He was the most improbable Johnny Appleseed you could imagine, with his squeaky voice and Yiddish accent,” Epstein said about his father.
Abraham Epstein died at the age of 50, having never personally received the Social Security benefits he spent decades advocating.
However, Abraham’s widow did receive survivors’ benefits after her husband’s death – the result of an amendment to the original Social Security Act that was also pioneered by her husband.
Joan Davis, a lecturer in the Work and Human Resource Education department at the University, attended Epstein’s talk.
Davis said the topic of Epstein’s lecture was of particular interest to her as she wrote a dissertation on a Minnesotan who, similar to Epstein, helped pioneer the idea of an old-age insurance program at the state level before the Social Security Act was passed.
“Also, with my students we talk about how one person can make a difference,” Davis said. Abraham Epstein’s story is a testament to that idea, she said.
As far as what his father would have thought about the current state of the Social Security program, Pierre Epstein dismissed the notion of a Social Security crisis.
“We have, in the course of every 10 or 20 years, made little tweaks to the Social Security system that made it go on,” Epstein said, adding if no changes at all were made to the current system, retirees would still be able to receive full benefits until at least 2042.
Former Congressman Tim Penny, a senior fellow at the University’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance who has served on several Social Security taskforces, said our federal social insurance program will likely face a disaster in the not-too-distant future without considerable reforms.
The longer we wait to address the problem, Penny said, the more necessary it becomes to substantially increase payroll taxes, which results in an uneven burden on the current generation of workers.
Because of this, today’s workers would pay more into the system more than they might eventually receive in benefits.
“Is it an immediate crisis? No, but the fiscal challenge begins in about 10 years,” when Social Security will begin paying out more than it’s taking in for the first time in several decades, said Penny, who did not attend Epstein’s lecture.
He added that people like Epstein, “and many others put enormous faith in the trust fund.”
The “trust fund” Penny referred to is the Social Security surplus revenue from which the federal government has been borrowing, which is backed by U.S. Treasury bonds.
Penny said relying on trust-fund money is based on the assumption that the money will be available when it’s needed.
Penny said he would like to see Social Security reform including some kind of personal account as part of a two-tiered system, with the traditional safety net of the original system also preserved.
“Young people have a vested interest in reform now,” he said.
Penny said the few adequate legislative proposals he’s seen on the topic have included a combination of reduced program costs, increased payroll taxes and investment of the Social Security surplus, all aiming to compensate for the projected drain.