(AP) One way that surging GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain has distinguished himself from his rivals is by calling for an alternative to Social Security — a private retirement plan modeled on one instituted a generation ago in Chile.
“Chile — they had the same problem nearly 30 years ago,” Cain said last month at a forum in Florida, one of several occasions where he’s touted his proposal. “They went to an optional, personal retirement account approach, and they now have individual retirement accounts for their workers.”
But there’s nothing optional about Chile’s system. It requires that all workers contribute 10 percent of their salaries to private pension plans, plus other fees for insurance. These private funds have grown by an average of 9 percent annually after inflation since 1981,creating wealth that has boosted Chile’s economy.
Still, many Chileans are unhappy over the funds’ commissions and fees, and frustrated that their pensions aren’t bigger. Polls have found that if given the choice, most Chileans would rather decide for themselves how to invest for their retirement.
A look at Cain’s claims and how they compare with the facts:
CAIN: “I believe in the Chilean model, where you give a personal retirement account option so we can move this aside from an entitlement society to an empowerment society. Chile had a broken system the way we did 30 years ago. A worker was paying 28 cents on a dollar into a broken system. They finally awakened and put in a system where the younger workers could — could have a choice — novel idea. Give them a choice with an account with their name on it and over time we would eliminate the current broken system that we have.” — GOP debate on Sept. 7 at the Reagan Library in California.
THE FACTS: The U.S. Social Security system faces long-term problems as more baby boomers retire, leaving relatively fewer workers to pay into the system. The Social Security trust funds are projected to be exhausted by 2036 unless Congress enacts changes. Once the funds are exhausted, the system would collect only enough payroll taxes to pay about three-fourths of the benefits Americans have been promised.
Chile had a similar system that was eating up nearly a third of workers’ incomes and going bankrupt before Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship created the private pensions in 1981. At the time, Chilean stocks were performing so badly that the military and police refused to go along. Many civilians also decided to stay with their government-run plans, but most switched.
Since then, all new employees have been required to contribute 10 percent of their first $33,360 in annual wages, choosing among five funds whose investments range from safe bonds to riskier stocks. Roughly half of Chile’s 17 million people pay into the private system today and can earn full pensions at age 60 for women and 65 for men, compared with a U.S. retirement age that is rising to 67.
Unlike traditional pension plans or Social Security, these investment accounts are the private property of each Chilean. Upon retirement, they can take out whatever’s left after taxes and spend it as they wish. Anything left over at their death can be inherited by their families.
Chilean companies aren’t required to pay anything into the system, unlike U.S. employers, who must match each worker’s 6.2 percent payroll tax. That makes the total Social Security tax 12.4 percent, applied to the first $106,800 of each employee’s wages. (Workers’ payroll taxes were cut to 4.2 percent for this year; they’ll return to 6.2 percent on Jan. 1 unless extended as President Barack Obama has asked.)
Starting in 2002, Chileans were allowed to invest up to 10 percent more in pretax savings — besides the mandatory program — that could be withdrawn at any time with no penalties other than taxes. Those voluntary plans, used mostly by Chileans wealthy enough to be able put away up to 20 percent of their income, have boomed, creating an additional $5.7 billion investment pool.
Transparency is built in: Chileans can use ATM-style cards or go online at any time to make projections and changes, and the government tightly regulates the funds, reporting each month on their progress. Success has bred imitation; 30 other countries have adopted something similar.