When did dependence become an American value? From the deterioration of Social Security to the crisis over public sector pensions, Democrats and their special interest supporters are warning constituents that their retirements are in jeopardy while claiming that there is an implicit guarantee from government to provide. Voters should be ignoring agenda-based pleas, and need to question the sanity of limiting their retirement prospects to campaign promises and the government dole.
If we learned anything from the past few years, it is how tenuous financial security can be. Houses lose value. Investments decline. Jobs disappear. Amidst news stories that Americans have decided to save at precisely the wrong time, we are harangued about the uncertainty of Social Security, and the threat of public sector workers becoming paupers if state budget shortfalls mandate changes to pension benefits.
Unions and the Democratic Party have joined forces to get the jump on Republicans for the 2012 election. Illinois, with its overwhelming pension debt, is a focus of organized labor’s We Are One campaign. Television and radio spots inform voters that pensions paid for with contributions from workers’ paychecks are the life savings of public sector employees.
In the private sector, employment guarantees nothing. Health insurance benefits are revoked, salaries cut, and 401(k) matches are eliminated with a memo or an email. Government is a late adopter, and public workers are a powerful voting bloc, so state and local governments maintain the antiquated notion that their employees are entitled to cradle to the grave security. The uprising against states trying to make public worker benefits affordable shows how ingrained the belief in public employee entitlement has become.
While limiting one’s prospects to the promise of a government pension or the fading guarantee of Social Security is foolish and short-sighted, politicians and media campaigns are reinforcing the strength of government promises of retirement security. Instead of focusing on affordability and state budget issues, politicians have turned the Wisconsin fracas into an argument over fairness and rights. Nancy Pelosi told us:
I stand in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers fighting for their rights, especially all the students and young people leading the charge, again, for fairness and for opportunity in their community.¹
President Obama tells us that Social Security income will be sufficient to provide for retirement:
Since 1935, it has been expanded to include dependent and survivor benefits, disability insurance, and guaranteed medical insurance for seniors through Medicare.
It is a lasting promise that we can retire with dignity and peace of mind, that workers who become disabled can support themselves, and that families who suffer the loss of a loved one will not live in poverty.²
The president mentioned the expansions that have helped to deplete the trust with a laundry list of beneficiaries. When FDR signed the Social Security Act, he told us that Social Security was no more than supplemental income:
But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.³
Harry Reid, on the other hand, is telling voters that Social Security is a retirement guarantee:
It promises all Americans that if they work hard and play by the rules, they can retire and live in dignity.4
Taxpayers cannot afford to rely on government assurances of financial security through employment or entitlements. It is reprehensible for our president, or any politician, to be telling Americans that Social Security will allow them to retire with dignity. It can’t, and it won’t.
Public sector jobs and benefits should be considered no less tenuous than their private sector counterparts. Lifetime pensions and health care benefits are an increasing rarity in the private sector, and for good reason. They are not affordable, and not sustainable. Government needs to get out of the pension business, and for current workers and those yet to be hired, that means an empty 401(k) bucket to fill, and a gold-plated list of private health insurers on the last day of work. The economic crisis was not the fault of private or public sector employees, but those who choose to depend on government and the promises of politicians for their futures will have only themselves to blame for the pitiful inadequacy of their retirement years.