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Social Security

Thanks to advances in modern medicine, people simply live longer than the generation before. While the rate of increase in life expectancy is leveling off, at least in America, a child born today still is predicted to live 78.5 years.

Life expectancy is near the bottom when compared to other wealthy nations, despite the enormous sums spent on health care. For those mired in poverty, five fewer years will be experienced.

But no matter how you slice it, the number of years one spends receiving benefits from the Social Security Administration is growing. Compounded the situation is the Baby Boom generation beginning to retire, dramatically altering the equation of how many workers are paying in versus how many retirees are getting monthly checks. The financial crisis developing has been discussed for years, yet no plan to address SSA's shortfalls has been discussed -- let alone approved.

Why not?

An argument could be made that Congress is too busy with other items. Given that body's propensity to delay every single decision it faces, there is no doubt the nation's lawmakers are busy. Productive? Not so much.

Another argument might be that since Social Security is not in emergency mode, things can't be that bad. We would offer that they are. SSA already pays out more than it brings in every year. The gap will do nothing but grow without attention from legislators.

The real reason might be nobody currently is sounding the alarm. The wheel hasn't been squeaking of late, so it's been easy to ignore.

With the departure of Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, whose last day on the job was Wednesday, the financial plight has been raised once again. Silent for most of the six years he headed the nation's largest federal program, Astrue was blunt on his way out the door.

Congress, the White House and senior citizen advocates all "really walked away from Social Security," the bureaucrat said in an interview. Saying policymakers were only using SSA "as a tool of political rhetoric" instead of discussing potential solutions, Astrue doesn't even think Congress is up for the task.

How bad is it? According to Astrue, Social Security's trust funds will be gone by the year 2033. While futuristic sounding, that's a mere 20 years away. At that point, SSA will only be able to afford 75 percent of the benefits it's required to pay.

Something obviously has to give. Benefits need to be reduced or taxes need to be raised.

The math is easy. The politics are not. Particularly given today's environment in Washington, D.C.

Members of Congress need to listen to the outgoing commissioner. So do all stakeholders, which includes every one of us. We can't work forever. But since we seem to be pushing the boundaries on how long we can live, a semblance of decent existence should be the least we can expect. This nation is strong enough to take care of its seniors.

The question is whether Congress is strong enough to take care of business.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net