Social Security

For as long as I can recall, every candidate for federal office has spoken about the need to rescue Social Security. I remember one Presidential debate, at least twenty years ago, in which one of the candidates referred to two unrelated opinion polls. One had asked young adult Americans whether they believed Social Security would still exist when they were ready to retire. The other had asked a similar demographic whether they believed that space aliens were visiting the Earth in UFOs. The result of the comparison was that more Americans believed in space aliens on UFOs than believed in Social Security.

Social Security was part of the New Deal enacted by Congress under President Franklin Roosevelt. Contrary to its name and to popular perceptions of the program, Social Security is a tax on working people used to pay other people—mostly the elderly and the disabled—not to work. The goal of the program, when it was created in 1935, was to open jobs for more workers and reduce unemployment by giving incentives to certain workers to leave the work force.

In 1935, the median average lifespan of Americans was seventy years. Today it is more than eighty years. This means that, when Social Security began, roughly half of the Americans who retired at age sixty-five could be expected to draw from the program for five years or less. Now, given better nutrition and health care than existed in the 1930s, more than half the Americans who retire at age sixty-five will draw from the program for fifteen years or more. No wonder many Americans doubt that Social Security can survive for another generation!

In 1935, each working American was taxed two percent of his or her income, but only up to $3000; money earned above that amount was untaxed. The tax was further hidden by requiring employers to match employee contributions, making the apparent tax only one percent. Today, the tax (including Medicare, which was added in the 1960s) is 15.3%, although it still seems less because employers are still matching employee contributions, making the tax appear to be less than eight percent (except for people who are self-employed). The ceiling of taxable income has risen from $3000 to $137,700.

Employment rates, salaries, longevity figures, and other numbers vary from year to year. Each year projections are offered to guess how long Social Security can continue to fund disabled and retired persons given current numbers. The dire prospect of running out of money for Social Security usually projects only a few more years of survival for the program, but somehow Social Security has continued to remain solvent even as some of the early years for its projected failure have passed.

The easiest way to keep a balance in Social Security are to raise the tax rate and to reduce the benefits paid. Neither of those options are popular in today’s political climate. Other questions can be addressed that might also help preserve Social Security as a government program for the foreseeable future:

  • Why place a ceiling on taxed earnings for Social Security? This practice causes Social Security to be more of a burden on low-income and middle-class taxpayers than on the wealthy. Removing the ceiling would generate more income for Social Security without adding any costs to the program.
  • Social Security earnings have never been taxed, but many recipients of Social Security are drawing more total income from various retirement programs and investments than the average American worker can earn. Replacing the ceiling on taxed earnings with an income above which Social Security is subject to withholding tax would generate income for the government without harming the average disabled or retired recipient of Social Security.
  • Retirement age needs to be reconsidered. Retirement at sixty-five (and early retirement at sixty-two) removes productive workers from their jobs while stressing the Social Security system. I plan to work full-time until I am seventy; I think most people my age are capable of doing the same. (Both my parents and all four of my grandparents lived into their eighties—two of the six into their nineties.)
  • Understand that Social Security never promised to provide a sustainable living income for retirees. Social Security is meant to supplement other investment and retirement income. Unlike life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Social Security is not a God-given right. Social Security is a government program of taxation and payment of benefits which can be adjusted by the government whenever it chooses (remembering that the members of government are subject to replacement by the voters whenever they make and enforce unpopular laws).
  • Understand that currently Social Security is generating more government income than it is costing government expense. Predictions of the collapse of Social Security always depend upon extending current trends. Adjustments made over the years have sustained Social Security well beyond earlier forecasts of shortfalls. Continued adjustments will be more significant than any massive overhaul of the system.

In short, candidates for political office often threaten the end of Social Security as a way of scaring voters. Real assessments of the program show no need for worry or fear. Like other panics over illnesses, environmental changes, technological failures, and political confrontations, news of the collapse of Social Security is largely exaggerated and used to manipulate public opinion. J.

Prayer request

Last week I mentioned that some of my coworkers are retiring.

I neglected to mention that their retirement was not voluntary.

This is how that came to pass:

Four years ago, the director of the System for which I work retired. He was replaced by a new director, a former member of the Board that oversees the System. Clearly, they knew what kind of director they were getting.

The previous director was a visionary leader. The new director is a pragmatic leader. (One of his favorite words is “sustainable.”) Once he settled into his position, became familiar with the details of the System, and replaced most of the administrative leaders with his people, he then persuaded the Board to hire a consulting firm to determine how the System is operating and how it can be improved.

Now at this level of operations, one does not find a consultant by randomly looking in a phone book. Instead, one researches the various consultants in the field, studying the advice they have given other clients. One selects the consultant that has, in the past, given the kind of advice one wants to receive. The consultant then examines the System, interviewing employees and clients and people in the service area who have not been clients. Having done all this work, the consultant produces a report on the System with suggestions for improvements. Any unpopular improvements can be blamed on the consultants and on their research. So the System began developing a strategic plan, based on the recommendations of the consultant, and aimed at making the System more helpful to its clients and prospective clients.

The previous director—the visionary leader—created, over the years, a special department within the System to achieve tasks not done by other branches of the System. I was hired to work in that department. The strategic plan, based on the work of the consultants, treats my department as one of fifteen branches, similar to the others rather than unique. That same plan points out that my department is far more expensive to the System than any other branch. Although there was talk this past spring and summer about targeting our unique services to serve the branches, by the end of the summer it was obvious that our branch budget was going to be significantly smaller in 2020. The only way to meet that budget was to reduce staff. My division of the department was targeted for cuts, and so our size as we enter 2020 is about half of what it was a year ago.

And we already know that the branch budget for 2021 will be smaller yet.

The coworkers who were involuntarily retired happen to be workers who have served in the System for years at various capacities. They had scaled back to part-time, aiming toward eventual retirement; but they had hoped to continue working for a bit longer. The branch manager explained to all of us that no one had been singled out for removal, but that part-time positions were no longer considered “sustainable.” This explanation is, at best, a partial truth. Removing these positions without singling out the actual workers saves the branch money, and it also indicates that my division within the branch is least valuable to the branch and to the System and most likely to be targeted for future cuts.

That presents half the puzzle. Now that I have written more than five hundred words—now that casual readers have clicked off the post and only my friends are still reading—here is the other half. In the summer of 2016, I studied for, took, and passed a certifying exam, giving me full credentials for the position I currently occupy. But that same summer, I received a phone call from a pastor in the area (who also happens to be a friend). He said that two congregations were combining to hire a pastor and my name had been mentioned among the possibilities. Would I consider returning to full-time church work? I had not been thinking about returning, so I asked for a day to consider the question. My oldest daughter pointed out that I could say yes, I would consider it, and still be free to say no later; but that if I said no right away I would wonder later if I had been right or wrong. So I said yes, I would consider the position if it was offered. It turned out that I was the second choice of the committee choosing a pastor and their first choice said yes. But a hint was dropped that a new door might be opening.

I belong to a group of churches that are very congregational. No church official can assign a pastor to a congregation, nor can a pastor advertise that he is seeking a position. Congregations seeking pastors create a list of possibilities, study the qualifications of the candidates, sometimes interview the most promising candidates, and then offer a call to the one they believe will serve them best. Church officials can make recommendations, but they cannot place a pastor in a position. Any pastor who advertises himself for a position disqualifies himself for that position. “The office seeks the man; the man does not seek the office.”

But, having been considered for one opening in the area, I updated my paperwork and indicated to the regional church official that I was willing to be considered for a call. Several opportunities came and went, but no one contacted me to say I was being considered. More than a year ago, the regional church official, along with my friend, strongly urged me to accept a call to a congregation about fifty miles away, but it would have been a part-time position, so I told them no. Now, with the changing situation with my full-time job, I thought I had better act. I contacted the regional church official, and he set up a meeting with me early in October. I gave him the details of my personal position and encouraged him to recommend me wherever he thought I would be suitable. Commenting that adult members of my family were establishing themselves in the community, he suggested that he would be reluctant to recommend me for a position too far from where I live now. But he agreed to do what he could to help move me back into full-time church work.

On December 1, another friend of mine—also a pastor—announced his retirement, effective the beginning of May. I know his congregation well, and I am well-known there. Some of my children have joined that congregation. My family attends special services there, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. I am very comfortable with their traditional style of worship, and I know that my theology and approach to pastoral work is much like that of the current pastor.

The regional church official met with the congregation’s call committee around the middle of December. On the last Sunday of December, the chair of that committee announced that the members of the congregation will be surveyed about the congregation’s need for a new pastor and that nominations will be accepted at the same time. (These steps are happening much faster than is typical for a calling congregation.) There is no way to apply for the position, no one who would accept a resume, no way of getting their attention that would not have the opposite effect of disqualifying me for the position.

All I can do is pray. I can bypass the congregation’s leaders and the regional official and go straight to the Lord of the Church. But even such prayers must be qualified with the phrase, “Thy will be done.” I see only part of the picture; the Lord sees far more than I see. To me it seems like an ideal match. I expect that at least some of the members of this congregation would agree. But the process must be left for the Lord to guide.

I invite your prayers for me and for this congregation. I know that getting other Christians to pray will not force God to do what I want. At the same time, we can always ask. And please also pray that I may be made worthy of such a position, that God would shape me to be the kind of servant he wants in his Church. And may his good and gracious will be done. J.

Merry Christmas

For the next few days, I will be living “off the grid” so that I can focus this Christmas season on Christ, on Church, and on family. I will return next week to continue my series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and to write of other things.

Let me take this opportunity to wish each of you a merry and blessed Christmas. May God richly bless you and those you love during this holy season and in the coming new year. And (as I said yesterday to two coworkers who are retiring), may you have as much fun and excitement as you want and as much peace and calm as you want. J.