Should We Raise Social Security Age to 70?

Could we raise as soon as possible the typical age for beginning to draw Social Security to 70, with charitable exceptions for those who need immediate help?

President Bush was right to say last Saturday, “If we do not act soon, Social Security will not be there for our children and grandchildren.” I prefer his proposal, particularly the semi-privatizing part, to raising payroll taxes. But it still spills red ink as far as the eye can see.

That doesn’t have to happen if we understand how much has changed since Social Security came into being almost 70 years ago. Life expectancy was lower, the physical expectations of most jobs higher, and the wear and tear on most individuals greater.

A Social Security stipend for those who made it to 65 was a present and sometimes a lifesaver for those worn out by factory work. Today, though, with improved health care, most people make it to 65 (or 66, scheduled to be the vesting age for most baby boomers) fit as only a slightly dented fiddle.

It’s likely that the average person at 70 today is healthier than the average person at 65 back then, so raising the age to 70 would not be an undue hardship. The harder question, though, is whether such a change would be cheating people out of retirement.

In considering this question, we should realize that retirement is not a happy time for millions of individuals. Too many people who retire feel useless. Some exacerbate the problem by deliberately moving far away from children and grandchildren into elderly-only apartments and condominiums.

Ask yourself about the happiness of the people between 65 and 70 that you know: Are those who are working, perhaps on a part-time basis, perhaps in a different career, less happy than those who wonder how to fill up their days? And if you believe in God, ask whether it’s right for a healthy person to stop using the occupational talents God has bestowed on him.

I think of Tetsunao (Ted) Yamamori, born in 1937 in Japan and the head of the relief organization Food for the Hungry since 1981. Over the next 20 years, he grew the organization enormously until he “retired” in 2001. Since then, he has written two books on China and co-authored or edited three more. He consults widely and will be a guest professor at three seminaries or universities in 2005 and 2006. He says, “There is no retirement for a Christian worker.”

Not everyone can be a world traveler like Ted. But I also think of Bea Crow, who was food service director at Alpine Camp in Mentone, Ala., for 69 years, starting when she was 17. When she turned 65, she stayed on and enjoyed it so much that she stayed on past 70 and past 80.

A doctor decreed a year ago that at age 86 Mrs. Crow could no longer face the stress of feeding 350 hungry people three times a day. She reluctantly left the camp kitchen, but as if to show that the doctor was at least part-wrong, she went out and planted the largest vegetable garden in the county.

We should remember that the tragedy described in chapter three of Genesis (“the fall of man”) made working conditions much harder than they would otherwise have been, but the opportunity for productive labor is a blessing from God, who commands us to labor on six-sevenths of the days.

Those who believe in the importance of serving others should lead the way by fighting against the temptation we all have, and maybe especially as we age, to close in upon ourselves. Maybe the rest of the country will then follow, and Social Security will focus on those who really need it.