November 21 ,2007

 

Bob Ball and Social Security

By Edward Berkowitz

Robert M. BallRobert M. Ball, who served as Commissioner of Social Security from 1962 to 1973, has been an important participant in every Social Security development of the past 60 years. He first went to work for Social Security in 1939, leaving seven years later to teach Social Security policy at the American Council on Education University-Government Center. Then, as staff director of the 1947-48 Advisory Council on Social Security on the Senate Finance committee, he played a key role in shaping the 1950 legislation that greatly expanded coverage and benefits.

After rejoining Social Security in 1950, he served as the agency's top civil servant from 1952 to 1962, a period in which disability insurance was added to Social Security and benefits and coverage were further expanded. He then served as Commissioner under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. His responsibilities included setting up Medicare and administering it during its first seven years of operation. It was during this period as well that Social Security benefits were substantially increased and automatic cost-of-living adjustments adopted.

From 1973 to 1980, Mr. Ball was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Medicine , writing and lecturing extensively on Social Security, Medicare, and national health insurance while advising many organizations and elected officials. During this period he designed the Kennedy-Mills bill, which would have provided for universal national health insurance, and was instrumental in shaping and helping to get passed the Carter Administration proposals of 1977 which revised the way the cost-of-living adjustments were computed and greatly improved Social Security financing.

Over the years Mr. Ball has served on several official advisory councils and commissions on Social Security including the pivotally important Greenspan Commission of 1983, created to deal with the inflation-induced financial crisis of the late 1970's and early 1980s. Representing Speaker Tip O'Neill, he negotiated a rescue package acceptable to President Reagan. The 1983 Amendments remain the latest modifications of importance to the Social Security Act. Mr. Ball also served on the two most recent statutory advisory councils, the 1991 council on health insurance and the 1994-1996 council on long-range Social Security financing. He continues to serve as unofficial advisor to many policymakers while also writing and lecturing extensively on Social Security, Medicare, national health insurance, and welfare. His latest book is Insuring the Essentials: Bob Ball on Social Security , published by the Century Foundation in 2000.


Edward Berkowitz, Professor of History at the George Washington University is an expert on the history of Social Security policy and the author of a biography of Robert Ball published by the University of Wisconsin Press in the fall of 2003. The book was issued in paperback in July 2005.

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Meeting Social Security's Long-Range Shortfall
A Golden Opportunity for the New Congress
by
Robert M. Ball

Social Security is America's most successful and - deservedly - most popular social program. It is the base upon which nearly everyone builds retirement income, and has virtually eliminated poverty among the elderly. Social Security is also a family insurance plan that guards against insecurity and impoverishment as the result of the death or disability of a wage-earner. No other program so clearly makes the United States a better and safer place.

Yet there is widespread public anxiety about Social Security's future. This is understandable, given the frequency with which the system is described as going broke. For example, a recent Washington Post article stated that Social Security will "run out of money by 2040." It is true that by 2040, unless some action is taken as I am sure it will be, it is estimated that Social Security will not have enough money to pay full benefits. But even so, under present law, Social Security will never "run out of money" because the current level of payments into the system by workers and employers and the income from the tax on the benefits of higher income recipients are scheduled to continue indefinitely.

The same article claims that members of Congress seeking to fulfill their campaign promises to preserve Social Security face only three limited and painful options: "raise taxes, reduce benefits or make Americans wait longer for their Social Security checks."

This dire view, although widely held, is simply wrong. Actually, Democrats and Republicans interested in strengthening rather than undermining Social Security have a golden opportunity to do so in 2007 - without benefit cuts and with a few non-burdensome changes which are desirable in any event and entirely consistent with the program's goals.

First, some key facts:

As just about everyone surely understands by now, the aging of the babyboomers will greatly swell the ranks of Social Security beneficiaries over the next 30 years, with the total increasing from about 48 million today to about 89 million in 2035. The numbers will continue to grow after that, although more slowly, and are projected to reach 111 million around 2080, the end-point of the Social Security trustees' current 75-year cost forecasting estimates.

The challenge of meeting the cost of paying benefits to this largest-ever group of beneficiaries - who are also expected to achieve greater longevity than any prior generations - did not catch Social Security's long-range planners by surprise. They were focusing on it when the babyboomers were still 30 to 40 years away from retirement. And they are well aware that the system will continue to require financing at historically unprecedented levels even after mortality has claimed the last of the babyboomers.

Social Security has traditionally had two sources of income: the contributions of workers and their employers plus the investment income earned by the trust funds that hold the accumulating excess of income over expenditures. In 1983, when the most recent major amendments to the program were enacted, a third source of income was added: taxation of the benefits of higher-income beneficiaries. At that time, the income from these three sources was projected to cover estimated costs over the next 75 years - in other words, to meet the cost of the babyboomers.

However, because of changes since 1983 in some of the assumptions governing their long-range projections, Social Security's trustees now anticipate a deficit over the current 75-year estimating period of about 2 percent of payroll. It is this long-term shortfall - not trivial but not remotely synonymous with "going broke" - that must be addressed.

In doing so, we should not treat the next 75 years as a finite period of time during which we arrange to build up the trust funds only to then spend them down again. Instead we should make changes that will keep building the funds so that future earnings on the invested reserve will contribute to financing the system beyond the current 75-year estimating period. In the absence of such a reserve, we would have to substantially increase contribution rates from today's 12.4 percent of payroll to an estimated 17.8 percent in 2080 and even higher after that. Building and maintaining the reserve, therefore, should be an essential part of any strategy to strengthen the system.

We can bring the system into close actuarial balance -- the point where income and costs are projected to be within five percent of each other over the next 75 years – – with just three modifications of present law, and very importantly we can do the job without more benefit cuts.

1. Restore the Maximum Earnings Base to 90 Percent of Earnings

We should start by restoring the practice of collecting the Social Security tax on 90 percent of earnings in covered employment, the traditional goal reaffirmed by Congress in 1983.

Present law contains a provision that was intended to maintain the coverage level at 90 percent: an automatic annual increase in the maximum annual earnings base (now $95,000) by the same percentage as the increase in average wages. But this adjustment mechanism has not worked as planned, because over the past 20 years earnings at the top of the economic ladder have risen much more than average wages - so an increasing proportion of earnings exceeds the maximum earnings base and thus escapes Social Security taxation. Today, only about 83 percent of earnings is being taxed. That seemingly small slippage translates into billions of dollars in lost revenues each year.

We should get back to 90 percent, but I propose to get there very gradually, so that the 6 percent of earners with salaries above the cap would be required to pay only slightly more from year to year.

This can be accomplished by increasing the maximum earnings base by 2 percent per year above the increases occurring automatically as average wages rise. Thus, for example, the maximum this year would have gone up $1,900 (2 percent of $95,000) beyond the automatic increase, and the maximum tax increase beyond present law for an employee would have been $117.80 (the Social Security tax of 6.2 percent times $1,900). In practice, this would mean that deductions from earnings for the highest-paid 6 percent of workers would simply continue for a few days longer into the year (and for their additional contributions they would of course receive somewhat higher benefits). For the 94 percent of covered workers with earnings below the cap, there would be no change at all.

With this approach we would get back to the 90-percent level in about 36 years. Such a gradual adjustment would be virtually painless - but this seemingly small change would reduce the projected 2 percent of payroll deficit by nearly a third, to about 1.3 percent of payroll.

We could, of course, speed up the timetable in order to reach the 90-percent level sooner - let's say in 10 years instead of 36. That would reduce the deficit a bit more (to slightly less than 1.3 percent of payroll) but because it would require adding 8 percent rather than 2 percent per year to the automatic adjustment, we would substantially increase the burden of taxation on workers who earn not much above the present maximum. For example, someone earning only $7,500 above the cap next year would have to pay an additional tax of $465. The slower timetable accomplishes nearly as much deficit reduction without sharply increasing taxes for anyone.

2.   Earmark the Estate Tax for Social Security

In addition to restoring the taxable earnings base, we should establish a new source of funding by changing the estate tax into a dedicated Social Security tax beginning in 2010.

Present law gradually reduces the estate tax so that by 2009 only estates valued above $3.5 million ($7 million for a couple) will be taxed. President Bush and some Republican lawmakers then propose to abolish the estate tax permanently from 2010 on. Instead, we should freeze the tax at the 2009 level and earmark the proceeds for Social Security from 2010 on, thereby converting the residual estate tax into a dedicated Social Security tax just like the tax on employers' payrolls.

Such a tax would be a fair way to partially offset the deficit of contributions that was created in Social Security's early years. At that time the sensible decision was made to pay higher benefits to workers reaching retirement age than would have been possible had their benefits depended entirely on the relatively small contributions that they and their employers would have had time to make. But this decision created a "legacy cost" that future generations would have to address.

Like most of the founders of Social Security, I once assumed that general revenues would eventually be used to make up for this initial deficit of contributions. In principle that idea still makes sense, since there is no good reason why the cost of getting the system started should be met solely by the contributions of workers and their employers in the future. But there are no general revenues available for this purpose today because we now face deficits indefinitely into the future. So it makes sense to substitute for general revenues this new dedicated Social Security tax based on a residual estate tax that might otherwise be dropped altogether.

Carving a modest tax on large estates out of general revenues to help pay off part of the cost of establishing a universal system of basic economic security would be a highly progressive way to partially offset the legacy cost. Moreover, to allow the transfer of huge estates from one generation to another without requiring a contribution to the common good is undemocratic in principle (as Tom Paine, among other early advocates of an inheritance tax, recognized). Although the accumulation of large estates may in many cases be largely attributable to the hard work of the estate owners, wealth also derives from the general productivity of the American economy and its infrastructure. Thus, a tax for the common good is a reasonable payback for the common contribution to estate-building.

Opponents of even a greatly reduced estate tax have relied on the emotionally charged argument that such a tax forces those who inherit farms or small businesses to sell them in order to pay the tax. This argument has been proven to be largely bogus, and a Congressional Budget Office study found that the $3.5-million exemption would almost totally protect against any such risk.

Changing the estate tax to a Social Security tax reduces Social Security's projected long-term deficit by about 0.5 percent of payroll. When combined with restoration of the earnings base, it cuts the projected deficit slightly more than in half, to 0.9 percent of payroll.

These two changes bring the deficit within sight of "close actuarial balance" - as indicated earlier, the point where income and costs are projected to be within 5 percent of each other over 75 years. The concept of close actuarial balance, which recognizes the impossibility of making exact forecasts so far into the future, has long been used by Social Security's trustees to help determine whether financing changes are needed. According to the trustees' middle-range assumptions, the cost of the present program today is estimated to average about 15.9 percent of payroll over the next 75 years, so a deficit of 0.9 percent of payroll would almost meet the test of close actuarial balance (since 5 percent of 15.9 percent of payrolls is about 0.8 percent of payrolls).

3.   Invest in Equities

Even though the two changes described above would bring the system near close actuarial balance, we should further strengthen Social Security's financing by diversifying trust fund investments. Some of the accumulated funds should be invested in equities, as is done by just about all other public and private pension plans. Several other government programs such as those for the employees of the Federal Reserve and the Tennessee Valley Authority already make such direct investments in stocks, as does Canada's social insurance system. There is no good reason to continue to require Social Security to invest only in low-yield government bonds.

Investment of a portion of Social Security's assets in stocks should be done gradually. I would propose starting with 1 percent in 2007, 2 percent in 2008, and so on, up to 20 percent in 2026 and capped at that percentage of assets thereafter. Investments should be limited to a very broad index fund (such as the Wilshire 5000) that reflects virtually the entire American economy. A Federal Reserve-type board with long and staggered terms should be created and assigned the limited but important functions of selecting the index fund, selecting the portfolio managers by bid from among experienced managers of index funds, and monitoring and reporting to the trustees and public on Social Security's investments.

Among other things, reliance on a board with long and staggered terms would guard against any risk that Social Security's investments could become subject to political manipulation, as some opponents of this change ostensibly fear. Social Security would not be allowed to vote any stock or in any other way influence the policies or practices of any company or industry whose stock is held by the index fund.

(It should be noted, however, that there would be no more reason to expect government interference in the stock market under this plan than under President Bush's privatization proposal, which would give government the responsibility for investing the individual accounts that he advocates. So the argument against letting Social Security invest in stocks because of the alleged risk of market interference has lost some partisan traction lately. But the key point is that concerns about political interference, whether warranted or not, can be addressed by limiting the amount of assets invested, requiring passive investment in a total-market index fund, and providing for oversight by a board structured to ensure its impartiality and autonomy.)

Investment by the trust funds has a major advantage over investment by individual accounts. For an individual it is very risky to invest one's basic retirement funds in stocks because, among other reasons, he or she will ordinarily need the money upon retirement, and in order to be sure of making the income last until death will need to promptly buy an annuity with the proceeds. But that could mean having to sell stocks and buy an annuity during a market downturn. As Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has shown (by examining what would have happened if an individual-accounts system had been in effect in the past), timing is everything. A variation of even a few months in the time of buying an annuity can make a huge difference in its value. In contrast, investment by the trust funds carries no such risk because Social Security could ride out market fluctuations.

As with the investments of a private retirement plan, the goal of trust fund investing would be to build up and maintain a reserve whose earnings would help meet future costs. This proposal is estimated to save about 0.4 percent of payroll. When combined with the other two changes outlined above, it brings the 75-year deficit anticipated by the trustees to an estimated 0.5 percent of payroll, well within close actuarial balance.

Fail-Safe Funding

It bears repeating that all three of these proposals are desirable in themselves regardless of their importance in reducing the long-range deficit. And even if their adoption were to result in overfinancing the program, it would still be desirable to enact them and then provide for an increase in benefits or a reduction in Social Security tax rates when it became clear that the system was overfinanced.

Similarly, it would be a good idea to provide for a contingency contribution-rate increase. As noted, a major objective in strengthening Social Security's financing is to ensure that the build-up of the trust funds is maintained so that earnings on the funds continue to contribute to future financial stability beyond the current 75-year estimating period. Thus it makes sense to provide for a contingency contribution-rate increase that may or may not be needed, depending on how closely experience follows the estimates.

If, despite adoption of the three changes outlined above, the trustees were at some point to project that the trust funds would begin to decline within the next five years, the contingency rate increase would go into effect automatically to prevent such a decline. (If in the unlikely event the projected decline were to occur before the maximum earnings base had been restored to fully cover 90 percent of earnings, the timetable for restoration of the 90-percent base would be accelerated, possibly obviating the need for the contribution-rate increase.)

It should be noted that there are other financing changes that could address the long-term shortfall, making it less likely that the contingent tax increase would be triggered. For example, adoption of the more accurate chained Consumer Price Index developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and which at some point would seem likely to be adopted would result in slight reductions in Social Security's annual Cost of Living Adjustments, thereby saving an additional 0.5 percent of payroll. This would bring the system into full 75-year balance according to the trustees' middle-range projections. And if Social Security coverage were to be extended, as it should be, to all newly hired state and local government employees (a portion of whom are the only sizeable group not now covered), the 75-year deficit anticipated under the middle-range estimates becomes a surplus of 0.1 percent of payroll. It is assumed that these sensible changes will be made before any contribution rate increase would need to be considered.

It is, of course, possible that because of productivity increases greater than currently assumed or other favorable changes in the economic or population assumptions, the trustees' middle-range estimates may prove to be too pessimistic and actual experience may be closer to their low-cost estimates. In that case, also, it might not be necessary to have a rate increase. If actual experience, however, turns out to be close to the middle-range estimates, then, under the plan, contribution rate increase would occur automatically so as to build up the fund indefinitely into the future.

The point of the contingency rate increase is to recognize two points about Social Security's long-range financing: one, the uncertainty of any long-range estimates and, two, the undesirability of overfinancing which, of course, means that benefits are kept lower than they need to be or Social Security contributions are kept higher than they need to be. The plan's reliance on a fund build-up avoids the ultimately high rate of a pay-as-you-go system while guaranteeing just enough financing to pay full benefits.

Later on, as the proposals discussed here have a greater and greater effect, the Social Security trust funds will own an increasing proportion of the government debt, thereby reducing what the Treasury would otherwise owe to private institutions and the general public. Paying interest to Social Security will be no more burdensome than paying the interest that would otherwise have to be paid to other bond holders, and at the same time the burden of support for Social Security will be reduced.

A Balanced Approach

The three-point plan outlined here addresses Social Security's long-term shortfall solely by increasing income to the system. Why not cut benefits too?

There are two important reasons why benefit cuts should be firmly ruled out. First, benefits are already being cut as a result of gradually increasing the retirement age, which has the same effect as an across-the-board benefit cut. So a truly balanced approach to meeting the long-term shortfall must call for more income, not more benefit cuts.

Second, and more fundamentally, we simply cannot afford to reduce the protection that Social Security currently provides. Social Security benefits are the principal source of support for two out of every three beneficiaries - and are vitally important to nearly all the rest. At the very least, benefit levels need to be maintained. Ideally, they should be improved, particularly in light of the increasingly uncertain future faced by private pension plans - with traditional defined-benefit plans (many of them underfunded) now covering only about 20 percent of the private-sector workforce, and with the 401(k) individual savings plans that are to some extent replacing the traditional plans subject to the vagaries of individual investment experience and vulnerable to being cashed out before retirement.

It is within this context that we must assess Social Security's long-term financing shortfall. I believe that an accurate assessment can lead to only one conclusion: changes are needed but radical changes are unwarranted. And the changes outlined here are anything but radical. They are vastly preferable to the drastic benefit cuts that would accompany privatization or the drastic tax rate increases that would be required to cover the system's obligations in a strictly pay-as-you-go (no reserves) system. They are, in fact, not just necessary changes but desirable improvements that will strengthen the system now and for the long run.

It can be said of Social Security's future, as was once memorably said of the nation's, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Social Security does not face bankruptcy. It is not going broke. The system faces only a long-term shortfall and needs only a few sensible changes such as those outlined here.

 

Bringing Social Security into Long-Range Balance

  

Percent of payroll

Starting point: The seventy-five-year deficit as projected by the Trustees' 2006 middle-range estimate:

- 2.0

Deficit-reduction steps:

 

1. Very gradually restore the maximum taxable earnings base to 90 percent of covered earnings, the level set by Congress in 1981.

+ 0.7

2. Change the estate tax into a dedicated Social Security tax, effective in 2010, following the 2009 provisions in present law, which taxes only estates of more than $3.5 million ($7 million for couples).

+ 0.5

Subtotal for 1 and 2

+ 1.2 

Deficit at edge of close actuarial balance (below 0.8 percent of payroll)

- 0.9

3. Invest some of the assets of the trust funds in stocks, reaching 1 percent of assets at the end of 2006, 2 percent at the end of 2007, and up to 20 percent for 2025 and later.

+ 0.4

Subtotal for 1 through 3

+ 1.5

Deficit well within close actuarial balance

- 0.51

Adopt the more accurate chained index for the cost of living

+ 0.5
The extension of coverage to newly hired state and local employees + 0.2
Balance + 0.1

1 Because of rounding, the numbers throughout do not necessarily add.

Source: The estimates in this table have been made by the Office of the Actuary, Social Security Administration, based on the assumptions underlying the middle-range estimates of the 2006 Trustees Report.

 

This is the letter of transmittal I have been sending out with the write-up of the plan:

Enclosed is the latest write-up of my plan to meet the long-range deficit in Social Security. It stresses the importance of bringing the program into balance without benefit cuts or other changes that could be seen as having a serious negative impact on anyone. It then proceeds to outline such a plan.

I am concerned that some supporters of the Social Security program, having won on the issue of diverting Social security taxes to setting up private individual accounts, might be willing to accept some benefit cuts in a negotiated settlement with the Administration or in the conclusion of a new commission. But privatization is not the only issue.

Cutting benefits is a very bad idea. Benefits are currently not too high and under present law they are being reduced as a result of raising the retirement age which has the same effect as a general cut in benefits. Today Social Security benefits at age 65 for the average worker are 42 percent of recent earnings without counting the deductions for Medicare. With such deductions the replacement rate is 39 percent. For workers 65 in 2030 and earning the average wage, benefits payable under present law will be only 36 percent of the workers' recent earnings without counting Medicare deductions and 32 percent of recent earnings with these deductions counted.

At the same time, coverage of workers under traditional pension plans promising a defined benefit supplementary to Social Security has shrunk until today only about 20 percent of the private work force have such protection. The 401(k) plans that to some extent are substituting for the traditional plans do not provide comparable protection; the protection they afford depends on the investment experience of the plan and whether the retiree elects an annuity guaranteeing payments until the end of life. Since turning the benefit into an annuity is voluntary, too often the benefits will run out before death -- and moreover it is doubtful that these voluntary plans will be successful over time in forcing beneficiaries to wait until retirement age to receive payment. Thus, frequently these benefits will not be of much help during retirement.

We simply can't afford to reduce the support that Social Security uniquely provides. Social Security benefits are the key to economic security in old age and for a family in the event of the disability or death of a worker. Social Security now provides more than half of retirement income for two out of three of those 65 and older and is a very important source of income for just about all the rest.

There is no need to cut benefits as part of solving Social Security's long-range shortfall. As shown in the enclosed, three changes in the program, which are highly desirable in any event, can bring the program into close actuarial balance without cuts.

Sincerely yours,
Robert M. Ball

Robert M. Ball was Commissioner of Social Security under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and has subsequently served on many statutory advisory councils as well as on the bipartisan commission that produced the 1983 amendments. He is the author of Insuring the Essentials: Bob Ball on Social Security (Century Foundation, 2000). For additional discussion of the proposals described here, see The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble, by Nancy J. Altman (Wiley, 2005).

To see Robert M. Ball's detailed CV, click here: http://www.ssa.gov/history/orals/ballcv.html

For oral history interviews with Robert M. Ball, click here: http://www.ssa.gov/history/orals/balloralhistory.html

regarding social security,
a LETTER TO THE EDITOR of the New York Times, appearing January 7th, 2007

To the Editor:

Re “And Now, a Word from Chile . . .” (editorial, Dec. 31, 2006):

You are right in asserting that the failure of Chile’s privatized old-age security program should be a cautionary lesson for President Bush and other would-be privatizers of our Social Security system. But you are wrong in arguing that “modest” benefit cuts are needed to strengthen Social Security for the long run.

Any proposal to cut benefits, even “modestly,” must collide with two inescapable facts. First, no one can seriously argue that benefits are too high now — and they are already being cut under current law. Second, and more ominous, is the decline of the nation’s private pension system and the dwindling of private savings. Social Security, intended to function as one of the legs of a three-legged stool supporting economic security in old age, is now the only firm leg. We simply cannot afford to weaken it.

Nor is there any need to. Three simple steps that are desirable in any case would close Social Security’s long-term revenue shortfall: restoring the practice of collecting taxes on 90 percent of covered incomes; investing some of the trust funds in equities; and dedicating a residual estate tax to Social Security rather than eliminating the tax entirely as President Bush proposes.

This would be a truly balanced approach, and the Democratic-led Congress could pass it. We may have to wait until 2009 to get a president to sign it. But if necessary we can afford to wait a little while longer to get Social Security right.

Robert M. Ball
Mitchellville, Md., Dec. 31, 2006


A Social Security Fix For 2008

By Robert M. Ball
Published in The Washington Post
Monday, October 29, 2007; A15

In the Oct. 19 editorial " Mr. Giuliani's No-Tax Pledge ," The Post stated: "It's no more responsible for Republicans to rule out tax increases [to strengthen Social Security] than it is for Democrats to insist on no benefit cuts." The Post praised, as a "bipartisan blend," President Ronald Reagan 's acceptance of a 1983 fix that included both.

I take exception. It's the essence of responsibility, in my view, to insist on no benefit cuts.

In 1983, I served on the National Commission on Social Security Reform (better known as the Greenspan Commission) and represented House Speaker Tip O'Neill in negotiations with the White House . What was right in 1983 -- a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax increases as part, roughly half, of the final agreement -- would be wrong today.

Social Security benefits are modest by any measure and are already being cut -- by raising the age of eligibility for full benefits and by deducting ever-rising Medicare premiums from benefit checks. So the benefits provided for under present law will replace, on average, a lower percentage of prior earnings than in the past. To cut them further would undermine all that Social Security has achieved -- exposing millions of vulnerable people, both elderly and disabled, to needless economic hardship.

Social Security has never been more important to more Americans than it is now. Private pension plans continue to dwindle -- currently covering only about 20 percent of private-sector employees -- and the national rate of savings hovers around zero. We just can't afford to cut Social Security benefits further. There's no way to make up for the loss.

Social Security benefits are vital to nearly all recipients. About a third of the elderly rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income; two-thirds count on it to supply at least half of their income. The program lifts 13 million elderly beneficiaries above poverty.

Without Social Security, 55 percent of the disabled -- and a million children -- would live in poverty. The program is particularly important to women and minorities. It provides 90 percent or more of the incomes of almost half of all unmarried women age 65 and older (including those who are widowed, are divorced or never married), and it is the sole source of income for 40 percent of elderly African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Social Security is the nation's most effective anti-poverty program. But it's much more than that. For every worker it provides a solid base on which to try to build an adequate level of retirement income. To weaken that foundation would be grossly irresponsible.

The good news is that there's no need to weaken it. We can shore up Social Security for the future without cutting benefits -- or raising contribution rates. The program can be brought into close actuarial balance over the long run with just three revenue-enhancing changes that are desirable in any case:

Presidential candidates should be expected to discuss Social Security financing. But in 2008 they shouldn't be held to a 1983 formula. We're in a different time, with different needs -- and there are much better options available than benefit cuts.

Robert M. Ball was commissioner of Social Security in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.