11/05/2012 06:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sticking It to the Young

When it comes to the elderly and their Social Security benefits, President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney don't just sound "similar," as Obama put it in their first debate. They sound identical.

"Neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare," Romney assured on the same occasion. "So if you're 60 or around 60 or older, you don't need to listen any further."

He could have been echoing the president's January 25 State of the Union address. "We should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations," Obama said, "without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities."

So who does that leave to absorb the "tweaks" that the president tells us are needed to keep Social Security solvent?

That would be younger and middle-aged workers -- more than 127 million of them, aged 25 to 54. From those just out of school and struggling with student loan payments to those still working to pay off mortgages, pay for their own children's education, and, increasingly, care for aging relatives, despite years of real wage stagnation.

To these individuals and their families, Obama merely promises, ambiguously, not to "slash" their Social Security benefits or privatize the system. His rival's party platform is even less reassuring. "Republicans are committed to setting [Social Security] on a sound fiscal basis that will give workers control over, and a sound return on, their investments," it says. "The sooner we act, the sooner... younger workers can take responsibility for planning their own retirement decades from now."

That's a joke, right?

Workers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s today are likely to be more dependent on Social Security than any generation since the program started up nearly eight decades ago. Because the other sources of retirement income that their parents and grandparents have counted on are fading away.

Employer-sponsored pensions are disappearing both for private -- and, now, for public sector workers. Replacing them are 401(k) accounts that can be -- and frequently are -- crippled by a lurching stock market. Real wage stagnation, student loans, and spiraling health care costs have combined to push other household savings well below its historic level. Home equity, long one of the main wealth generators for working families, took a hit estimated as high as $8 trillion when the housing bubble collapsed and is unlikely to make up the difference for many, many years.

In short, younger and middle-aged Americans already face a retirement crisis of dire proportions in coming decades. Expecting them additionally to absorb the cost of a drastic overhaul of Social Security, and then "take responsibility" for the hit to their retirement benefits is not only unfair, since they've paid for those benefits through their payroll taxes, but impractical, given the grim prospects for personal wealth-building for those outside the 1%.

Social Security isn't bankrupting America. The program's 75-year deficit amounts to just 1% of GDP -- that is, of the entire economy over that period. That's not much, given that Social Security keeps 21 million people a year out of poverty, according to the Social Security Administration, and enables many more millions of retirees to live independently rather than becoming an economic burden on their families and communities. The shortfall could be forestalled with modest payroll tax hikes or by raising the cap on income subject to payroll tax, which would generate additional revenue from individuals who can most afford to pay.

Instead of focusing on Social Security's alleged threat to the nation's balance sheet, this year's presidential and congressional candidates should be telling us what they'll do to expand and update the program so it can help today's workers meet the retirement crisis. Benefits could be raised for lifetime low-wage workers (a fast-growing category) and expanded for surviving spouses of deceased workers and their children. Caregiver credits should be instituted for workers who leave the labor force - and stop building up Social Security benefits - to care for children and aging relatives. Benefits could be further modernized by awarding them to same-sex and other nontraditional partners.

These are just a few ideas worth considering. But first, let's stop talking about younger and middle-aged workers as though cutting their benefits would be painless. It wouldn't.