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Blahous, a Republican, warns that the magnitude of the problem is becoming so great that "Social Security's days as a self-financing program are numbered" if Congress doesn't act in the next few years. Democrat Robert Reischauer, Social Security's other public trustee, is less dire in his predictions but has told Congress that it needs to act within five years.
Others express less urgency.
"I would like to see Congress move on this tomorrow but we do have 22 years before there is any cut inSocial Security benefits," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont who heads the Senate Social Security caucus. "Compared to other crises — the collapse of the middle class, real wages falling for American workers, 50 million people having no health insurance — how would I rate the Social Security situation? Nowhere near as serious as these and many other problems."
AARP, the nation's most powerful lobbying group for older Americans, agrees.
"I'm not suggesting we need to wait 20 years but we do have time to make changes to Social Security so that we can pay the benefits we promised," said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy director. "Let's face it. Relative to a lot of other things right now, Social Security is in pretty good shape."
Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent tax on wages. Workers pay half and their employers pay the other half. Self-employed workers pay the full amount.
The tax is applied to the first $110,100 of a worker's wages, a cap that rises each year with inflation. For 2011 and 2012, the tax rate for employees was reduced to 4.2 percent but is scheduled to return to 6.2 percent in January.
Social Security's finances are being hit by a wave of demographics as aging baby boomers reach retirement, leaving relatively fewer workers behind to pay into the system. In 1960, there were 4.9 workers payingSocial Security taxes for each person getting benefits. Today, there are about 2.8 workers for each beneficiary, a ratio that will drop to 1.9 workers by 2035, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office.
About 56 million people collect Social Security benefits, and that is projected to grow to 91 million in 2035. Monthly benefits average $1,235 for retired workers and $1,111 for disabled workers.
Marge Youngs, a 77-year-old widow from Toledo, Ohio, said Social Security makes up most of her income. She's reasonably sure that Social Security's financial problems won't affect her benefits but worries about her children and grandchildren.
"We might not have to worry about it, but it's the next generation coming up that will," Youngs said.
Corryn Grace Freeman, 22, a recent college graduate from Columbia, Md., said she understands the federal government must address its growing budget problems but worries that her generation will be "penalized" for being born late.
"It's like we're paying for the current elderly, we have to save more for ourselves, and we don't get any help in the future," Freeman said. "And not to mention we're facing one of the toughest job markets that the U.S. has been faced with."
– Associated Press writer Andres Gonzalez contributed to this report.