Until about a decade ago, most of us knew little about how much money we had contributed to the Social Security Administration (SSA). While our check stubs usually provided year-to-date totals, and our W-2 forms gave us the total amount for the entire calendar year, determining our lifetime contributions to the fund would have required detailed, long-term record keeping.
That changed in 1999 when Congress passed legislation requiring the SSA to provide workers with annual statements indicating what their monthly benefit payments would be if they were to retire or become disabled, or what payments would be due to the family in the event of the worker’s death. These statements also provide workers with an opportunity to check for any errors in their earnings or taxes. On an annual basis, the SSA sends out nearly 125 million of these statements to American workers.
However, the SSA has announced plans to discontinue these notices. According to Commissioner Michael Astrue, the SSA plans instead to institute an online retirement estimator, where a worker can plug in a few numbers and obtain a ballpark figure to count on for their retirement benefits. Missing, however, is information regarding the worker’s disability benefits or survivor benefits for the worker’s family.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has sent a letter to Commissioner Astrue asking him to re-evaluate this decision. In addition to citing the 1999 law requiring these statements from the SSA, Sen. Cardin also highlights the usefulness of this information in planning for retirement. In Sen. Cardin’s estimation, the value for each worker having access to this information easily justifies the cost required to generate and distribute these statements. Sen. Cardin also re-iterates the importance of each worker having the opportunity to correct any possible clerical errors in the reporting of their income.
While the importance of these statements is completely understandable, surely the possibility exists for another viable option. It would seem perfectly logical to make the current statements available online. With the big push toward “greener” lifestyles, conservation, etc., it would make sense to create a system whereby American workers could access current information regarding their potential Social Security earnings and benefits in a paperless manner.
The technology exists for any of us to access our cell phone records and see what numbers have been called or who called us, regardless of whether or not we have actual physical possession of our phones. We can rent movies online. We can order a pizza. Surely it can’t be prohibitively difficult to create a secure system for all of us to find out what our income would be if we were to retire or become disabled.
Of course, it is absolutely essential that such a system would be virtually impenetrable to hackers, given the sensitivity of the information and the seemingly limitless potential for it to be misused, modified or falsified. However, the technology exists now and we should take advantage of it.