Do you think of Social Security as an insurance policy or as a pension plan?
Your answer likely defines how you respond to the headline on Monday's front page: "For many, S. Security is no longer a good deal."
The story, by Stephen Ohlemacher of The Associated Press, explained that today's retirees are the first generation that can expect to pay more in Social Security taxes than they will receive in retirement benefits.
If you consider Social Security an insurance policy, you may not be upset by that news. After all, Americans don't purchase car insurance hoping to get in a wreck so we can recover our premiums.
Insurance protects against events we hope won't happen - and there's no question that Social Security covers some of those scenarios. In Arizona, it pays benefits to 150,000 disabled former workers, plus more than 34,000 of their spouses and minor children.
More than 76,000 widows and widowers and nearly 35,000 children in Arizona receive Social Security survivors benefits.
No one hopes to become disabled or to die and leave his or her family in precarious financial circumstances. Social Security is there as protection in case those disasters do occur.
On the other hand, if you are a new retiree and view Social Security as a pension, you're probably angry that the government isn't providing at least a break-even return on your tax withholding.
The trustees who oversee Social Security say the fund will actually run out in 2033 unless changes are made. So what's to be done? There is no shortage of solutions - raise the retirement age, cut benefits to wealthier people, reduce cost-of-living adjustments, raise taxes.
We could eliminate some benefits, such as those for people who don't pay into the system to begin with - spouses in households with single wage-earners.
We could drop the disability part of the program for new workers and let them buy private disability insurance. We could let workers opt out of the retirement program and put their money into private retirement accounts.
In the current political environment, however, it's nearly impossible to have a calm debate about the future of Social Security. It's easy to stir emotions because nearly all of us have a stake in the outcome: wages are taxed at a rate of 12.4 percent on the first $110,100 in pay; and nearly one in five Arizonans - 17 percent - receives some sort of Social Security payment right now.
For a program this big and important, it's long past time to have a reasoned discussion about what Americans want Social Security to be: insurance against catastrophe or a retirement savings plan.
We hope the news that Social Security "is no longer a good deal" for most new retirees will spur the debate.
Arizona Daily Star