WASHINGTON – Kathleen Casey-Kirschling filed for early retirement Monday, becoming the first baby boomer to start collecting Social Security.
Born one second after midnight in January 1946, the retired teacher leads the way for as many as 80 million individuals who will qualify for the retirement payout.
"I think I'm just lucky to be at the top of the boom. I'm just one of many many millions and am blessed to have been in this generation and really blessed and to take my Social Security now," Casey-Kirschling said during a ceremony held at the National Press Club featuring Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue.
Casey-Kirschling said she supports anyone who wants to collect retirement benefits whenever he or she is eligible to take them. But many Washington officials and American workers are wondering if Social Security will be able to support them.
David Walker, the comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, Congress' legislative arm, warned the Social Security system will soon have more recipients coming than it can afford to pay out.
"We face a tsunami of spending due primarily to the retirement of the baby boom generation and rising health care costs," Walker said. "So what's happened is we've gone from 16 workers paying into Social Security for every person drawing benefits in 1950 to 3.3 to one today, and we're going down to two to one by the time the boomers retire in big numbers and that's about where it will stay over the long run."
"We're going to have tens of thousands of baby boomers retiring every week over the next decade or so and that means that by time we get to 2017, just 10 years away, we will no longer be collecting enough payroll taxes to pay Social Security benefits," said former Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Penny.
Under current law, Social Security won't have enough money to pay promised benefits in 2041 but there is another crunch much, much sooner, the result of the the federal government relying on Social Security to pay for its annual spending.
When Social Security gets payroll taxes it pays out most of the money in benefits. The rest is supposed to go into a trust fund. Instead the government has been spending the money on other government programs, and putting IOUs into the trust. When Social Security needs the money it'll turn to the government waiting for the payback. But the government won't likely have any.
"This money has been borrowed, it's been spent, and there's no easy way to put it back," Penney said.
The loan is expected to be called in 2017, when the largest bloc of the boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will be retiring. By the mid 2020s, the federal government will have to fork over more than $200 billion a year, and then it climbs to more than $300 billion a year.
At the same time, all that is money that was being used for federal programs will no longer be available, meaning everything — from education to defense to the environment — will face a financial crunch.
Walker said over the next 75 years between Social Security, Medicaid and other entitlements, the federal government will be in a $50 trillion hole.
"Social Security represents about $6.4 trillion of that. Medicare represents $32 trillion of that. The surprising thing is that Social Security is the easy thing to fix," Walker said. Fifty trillion dollars, to put it in perspective, is 95 percent of the estimated net worth of every American including every billionaire. Fifty trillion dollars is $440,000 per American household."
For years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as the Bush and Clinton administrations, have been making alternate proposals for saving Social Security. They include raising taxes, reducing spending, limiting benefits or delaying the retirement age.
Walker noted that despite the term "entitlements," which comprise about 62 percent of government spending, government payouts are nowhere guaranteed in the Constitution.
"That 38 percent (of discretionary spending) represents all of the main functions outlined by the founding fathers of the United States for the federal government in 1787, and yet that 38 percent is being squeezed every year by mandatory spending programs," Walker said.