WASHINGTON -- The head of the Social Security Administration has dismissed fears about the bankruptcy of the system and lambasted critics for generating unwarranted worry in a "quest for dollars and votes."
Social Security Commissioner Gwendolyn S. King berated politicians and advertisers for perpetuating "myths" she says are gaining in popularity and could harm the future of the 50-year-old program, if left unchallenged.
In a speech this week at the National Press Club, Ms. King disputed three commonly held notions about the beleaguered program: Social Security funds will run out before younger workers now paying into the system have a chance to collect benefits; the program is discriminatory since blacks, having shorter average life spans than whites, are more likely to die before collecting; and benefits given to the elderly reduce funds available for needy children.
Funds in the Social Security system are valued at about $336 billion.
"We need to do away with this notion that the government has raided the trust funds and cleaned them out," Ms. King said. "It's an outright falsehood."
She accused a former U.S. senator, whom she declined to identify, of exploiting the empty funds notion as a "cheap fund-raising gimmick," saying the politician sent letters to senior citizens urging them to donate money to help fight the "theft" of Social Security trust fund money.
The commissioner denied that the nation's growing population of retirees will quickly outnumber active workers, whose earnings will not provide enough funds for their retirement. She said Social Security trust fund accounts, invested in U.S. obligation bonds and earning the prevailing interest rate, can be redeemed to provide enough funds for the nation's rapidly aging work force.
"When we reach that point in the next century in which the number of older Americans grows so great that active workers won't generate enough revenue to meet retirement benefit requirements, we will turn to the trust funds and redeem these securities for the dollars necessary to pay those benefits," Ms. King said.
Noting that it will be 35 years before the trust funds are needed to pay benefits, she said there was time to make adjustments in the system, if necessary, to ensure that future payments are met.
On the idea that Social Security is a discriminatory program, given that blacks have a shorter average life span than whites, she noted, for instance, that the average life span of black males is 64.8 years, compared with white males at 72.7 years, white females at 79.3 years and all blacks 69.2 years. Retirees are eligible to collect full Social Security benefits at age 65.
Americans mistakenly believe Social Security is just a retirement program, when in fact the system provides survivors' benefits and disability payments to millions, she said.
"It is precisely because of the African-American mortality rates, it is because of the comparably high rates of illness and disability . . . , that Social Security is such a critically important program for black Americans," said Ms. King, who is black.
Allowing people the option of paying the tax is a bad one, particularly since those who need coverage most would be unlikely to pay, she said.
The "trendy idea" that funds used for the elderly take away benefits for children is unjust, Ms. King said.
She said most senior citizens use benefits for "maintenance" such as food and rent, not luxuries.
"Who says our national policy cannot recognize, equally, the needs of both the vulnerable elderly and the vulnerable young?" she said.
"The Social Security programs . . . actually comprise one of the na
tion's largest child-benefit programs and the nation's most valuable family financial protection program. It's absurd to use the Social Security program to pit one generation against another."