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This Simple Move Could Save Your Social Security

By Dan Caplinger - May 24, 2020 at 12:01PM

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It should be easy, but for years, Washington has dragged their feet. Find out what it is -- and why there's new hope.

Tens of millions of Americans rely on Social Security for a huge portion of their monthly income, and many more expect to take advantage of their Social Security benefits in the future. Yet Social Security has faced the prospect of future financial problems for years, and Washington gridlock has seemed to prevent any real forward movement toward saving Social Security regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House.

Last month's 2020 Social Security Trustees Report highlighted the need for action in the near future, as the trust funds that will provide a growing portion of the funding for Social Security benefits are another year closer to running out of money. Yet along with the report's analysis of the financial condition of the Social Security program, 2020 marked yet another year in which the board of trustees overseeing these multitrillion-dollar pots of money failed to have the full level of representation required by law. With politics becoming more of an obstacle than ever toward finding a solution to Social Security's problems, naming the two members of the general public who should be included as trustees will be essential if policymakers actually want to find a lasting solution that Social Security recipients can understand.

Two Social Security cards along with a $100 bill.

Image source: Getty Images.

The importance of public Social Security trustees

When Social Security first came into existence, the trustees that held the funding for the program were all appointed government officials. The Secretary of the Treasury has always been the primary overseer of the funds, which is consistent with the Treasury's role in dealing with all of the federal government's financial matters.

However, when policymakers looked seriously at Social Security reform efforts in the early 1980s, they recognized the value of having public trustees who weren't part of the current administration. The idea behind having public trustees was that they would be able to represent the views of average Americans without being embroiled in the political pressures that the Treasury Secretary and other government officials face. In 1984, Social Security named Suzanne Denbo Jaffe and Mary Falvey Fuller to be public trustees. Other public trustees have followed in their footsteps over the course of the years since, offering their views and insight about Social Security's challenges and how to solve them.

Unfilled seats, unheard voices

Unfortunately, those responsible for naming and confirming public trustees to join the board governing Social Security's trust funds haven't been able to come to agreement about suitable people to fill the role. Since the late 2000s, however, the public trustee role has gotten embroiled in political controversy, and that's led to vacancies in the two seats for public trustees for long periods of time.

Specifically, from 2008 to 2010, the trustees reports for Social Security's trust funds didn't include any public trustees as signatories. Congress and the White House agreed to name Charles Blahous and Robert Reischauer to serve in the roles from 2011 to 2015, but after that, Washington officials have once again allowed politics to leave the spots empty from 2016 to 2020.

There've been some recent signs of progress. President Trump nominated William Dauster in February to be a public trustee, with the Democrat set to join Republican James Lockhart, whom the president nominated in January 2019. Lockhart served as Deputy Social Security Commissioner under President George W. Bush, while Dauster had a 30-year career of service to the U.S. Senate as a staff lawyer and economist specializing in budget issues.

Public trustees are more important than ever

Having informed leaders to represent the general public is the foundation of the American system of government, and with unprecedented challenges facing Social Security, it's long past time to have public trustees join the board overseeing the program. As government officials look at the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the huge economic disruptions it's caused, Social Security will have to adapt to changing conditions while still serving its purpose of protecting the financial security of retired and disabled Americans.

All it would take is a simple confirmation of the two public trustee nominees to bring the Social Security trust fund's board of trustees back to full strength. Having Lockhart and Dauster on board could help break the logjam that's prevented meaningful discussions of Social Security for years. With the fate of tens of millions of retirees hanging in the balance, there's no time left to waste.

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