Individual retirement accounts are "central" to repairing the Social Security system, a presidential commission has concluded in a final report, which says that private investments would allow workers to "build substantial wealth" and gain control over their financial destiny.
A draft of the report, released last night, also seeks to undercut public sentiment in favor of the nation's existing retirement system, saying that Social Security benefits "are no longer the bargain they once were" and represent an "egregious failing" to minorities, women and other groups at greatest risk of poverty in old age.
The commission bluntly makes this two-fold case as it recommends "multiple paths" it says would steer Social Security onto more solid financial footing in coming decades. The report explains in detail three alternatives the panel sketched out late last month. Each would allow workers for the first time to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market, but they differ substantially in other respects.
The alternatives, and the rationale underlying the commission's work, are laid out in the 165-page draft, which was written by the commission's staff and approved by the panel's two chairmen. The 16-member commission is to vote on the document at its final meeting today, seven months after President Bush asked the bipartisan group to design changes to the retirement system consistent with the individual investment accounts he advocated during his presidential campaign.
The report makes clear, however, that private retirement accounts, while helpful, would not completely buffer Social Security against the financial strains the program soon will confront, as the large baby boom generation begins to retire and Americans tend to live longer.
For that reason, one of the approaches the group endorses would slow the program's spending by changing the method for setting the size of the checks future retirees would receive when they become eligible. Benefit increases would be based on inflation, instead of the current method, in which benefits are adjusted to keep pace with wages, which historically have increased more rapidly.
Another alternative, the most intricate, would slow benefit increases to compensate for increasing life expectancy, increase incentives for Americans to work longer and allow workers to invest 2.5% of their payroll taxes in individual accounts only if they also invest 1% of their own earnings.
Under the simplest alternative recommended by the panel, workers could divert 2% of their payroll taxes into individual accounts, but the system would otherwise remain unchanged.
Each of these alternatives would move the program "toward a fiscally sustainable course," the report says, but it notes that "some move farther than others."
The two farther-reaching alternatives would make various changes to augment benefits for widows and for retirees who had low wages during their working lives.
Under each plan, workers would not be allowed to draw on their accounts before retirement, but they could leave their investments to their heirs. At first, the accounts would be managed by a government-appointed board that would tightly control the kinds of investments allowed. Eventually, the program might allow private-sector managers to handle investments and permit them to offer a broader array of mutual funds. Workers could change their investments once a year.
In several respects, the report seeks to counter the intense criticism the commission already has begun to draw. It tries to minimize the dramatic change that private accounts would represent for Social Security, describing the Depression-era program as a "work in progress" that is "never a finished thing."
It also tries to defuse one of the main arguments that often is leveled against a system of private accounts: that the transition would be expensive because the diversion of some payroll taxes would drain the program of income it needs to cover benefits for current retirees. The report says, "Transition investments in personal accounts are not 'costs,' but investments in a fiscally sustainable Social Security system." The report does not try to calculate how much money would be needed to fill that gap, but it recommends that the funds should be taken from surpluses the program is anticipated to run for the next 15 years.
The report also tries to accommodate the political climate, in which appetite for tackling the politically volatile issue before next year's congressional elections has vanished in the White House and on Capitol Hill. "The commission recommends that there be a period of discussion, lasting for at least one year, before legislative action is taken," the document says.
In advance of the panel's scheduled vote on the report today, interest groups and politicians across the ideological spectrum began this week to jockey for attention, rushing to issue statements ahead of time, praising or condemning the group's work.