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COMMENTARY: Candidates give short shrift to Social Security

Social Security is in a dire financial state in part because it is entirely possible to get elected to Congress without saying anything about the program.

Even in a good economy, the program’s prospects are not great. Given the latest forecasts from the Social Security Administration, people as old as 76 expect, on average, to outlive the system’s ability to keep its promises. At that time, seniors across Nevada can expect reductions to benefits approaching 25 percent — that is in a good economy.

These concerns should wake our elected officials, but they don’t. The political calculus of Social Security hasn’t budged in nearly 20 years. Candidates will tell you what their opponent will do and what they will not do, all while leaving no trace of what they would actually do to stabilize the program.

While candidates will spend tens of millions of dollars to fight for votes on the margin, they can’t find a dime to explain to us what they would do about the program on which the rest of us depend. Instead, politicians vaguely promise to protect Social Security while hoping that no one is so impolite as to ask how.

The current Senate race in Nevada illustrates the contradiction between the importance of a program and its visibility in the campaign.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto does not list Social Security as an issue on her Senate website. Back in 2015, she promised before going to Washington that she would fight to protect Medicare and Social Security. Yet, while she was in office the gap between what the program has promised and what it expects to pay has grown by nearly $10 trillion.

Last year, Sen. Cortez Masto co-sponsored the Social Security Fairness Act, which — believe it or not — would ensure that the system provides better benefits to the people who haven’t contributed a penny than to the people who have paid in over a lifetime. That change would cost future retirees about $600 billion in benefits.

Her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, appears to have successfully evaded any commitment on the subject. An attack ad from American Bridge 21st Century, “a rapid response” arm of the Democratic Party, claimed that Mr. Laxalt would “look at Social Security,” but the video appears to suggest that he is talking about a different program.

To the man on the street, the consequence of these choices voters make today may not be obvious. The only fact on which all experts agree is: The longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to fix. The more we elect people who have no commitment to the program, the more pain we will experience in our retirement.

At this point, Congress isn’t working on solving the problem. Lawmakers are talking about what the problem is. Democrats are roughly $20 trillion dollars apart on how much the program needs to be expanded. Republicans haven’t put forward a proposal in a decade.

Voters need to ask more questions and stop blindly accepting answers regardless of plausibility. Voters need to make the program a priority when they are in the voting booth. Until that happens, the program will drift to a point where the terms of the solution are harmful to the public.

Politicians say that Social Security is the “third rail” of politics. Touch it, and die. The fact is that we the voters need to change the way politicians look at the subject. They need to understand: Ignore it and lose.

Brenton Smith is the founder of Fix Social Security Now and writes regularly on Social Security reform.

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