Keeping Social Security solvent is a difficult problem that demands something sorely lacking in Washington: leadership.
So far, that leadership has not come from President Obama. Nor Congress. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is at least talking tough. But the issue hasn't risen to the campaign forefront, where it should be.
This is a political problem and the nation's elected leaders have lacked the will to solve it. Time is running out. Fast.
The latest report from the Social Security trustees says the retirement fund will run dry in 2033, three years earlier than previously projected. If that happens, benefits would still be paid from payroll taxes, but would be reduced approximately 25 percent.
The situation for Medicare remains unchanged but still dire. It is projected to run out of money in 2024. That could worsen, because Medicare's trustees said the pace of spending continues to accelerate.
Does anyone hear a loud clanging? That would be the alarm being raised by frightened lower- and middle-income households whose retirements hinge on the promise of Social Security benefits, which will be all or most of their retirement income.
The problem with the retirement fund is simple: people are living longer and more baby boomers are retiring.
There's another factor weighing down Social Security's other trust fund, the one for disability benefits. According to the Wall Street Journal, disability rolls have soared in recent years as more Americans with mental or physical problems seek to enter the program and others with less-severe issues applying because they have no job opportunities.
Mathematically, fixing Social Security is simple: Raise the amount of money coming in and/or reduce benefits. Raising the income level subject to taxes from the current $110,000 will bring in more money. Raising the eligibility age, reducing cost-of-living increases and limiting benefits given to the wealthiest Americans are some ideas that will help control spending.
The key roadblock to repairing Social Security and Medicare ironically lies in those people the programs serve: tens of millions of recipients, and millions more who expect to receive benefits. Politicians tend not to want to anger their core of supporters by suggesting, let alone implementing, changes to these programs. But this crisis requires tough decisions. And the sooner those decisions are made, the less drastic the solution needs to be.
Congress and President Ronald Reagan faced a similar Social Security crisis 30 years ago and found the political will to raise payroll taxes and the retirement age.
Looking at the political gridlock in Washington these days, it's difficult to believe any solution is possible. Certainly there's no hope of anything happening in this election year.
Presidential and congressional candidates owe the American people an explanation of how they will maintain vital benefits. And then they must find the political will to do it.