For the past two years, U.S. workers have been shortchanging the system in an administration effort to improve the overall economy. The strategy, which put an extra $20 or so in consumers' pockets every week, put more strain on a precarious system while producing an almost negligible effect on the economy. The payroll tax deduction cost the system $103 billion in 2011 and an estimated $112 billion this year. Come Dec. 31, chances are the payroll tax will go back to 6.2 percent -- even if Congress and the president can agree on an overall tax-cut policy.
The last report by the Social Security trustees, issued earlier this year, said the system, which was established in 1935 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, will run out of money by 2033, just as generation X approaches retirement. Actuarial estimates indicate there will be 81 million seniors by 2030 compared with 47 million today.
Democrats want to keep the system as is, with a tweak here and another there. Republicans still are pushing privatization for those 54 and younger.
"For younger people," Ryan said. "We say no changes for anybody 55 and above.
"And then the changes we talk about for younger people like myself is don't increase benefit for the wealthy people as fast as anybody else, slowly raise the retirement age over time. It wouldn't get to the age of 70 until the year 2103, according to the actuaries."
"With regard to Social Security, we will not privatize it," Biden rejoined. "If we listened to Romney in the Bush years imagine where the seniors would be now if their money had been in the market. Their ideas are old. Their ideas are bad."
Biden, who repeatedly asked voters who they trust, went on the attack after saying he was in the room in 1983 when former President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O'Neill worked out an agreement that made Social Security solvent through 2033.
"You were one of the few lawmakers to stand with President Bush when he was seeking to partially privatize Social Security," Biden charged.
"What we said then, and what I've always agreed, is let younger Americans have a voluntary choice of making their money work faster for them within the Social Security system,"Ryan responded.
"You saw how well that worked," Biden said in reference to the stock market crash in 2008.
"The bottom line here is that all the studies show that if we went with Social Security proposal made by Mitt Romney, if you're 40 -- in your 40s now you will pay $2,600 a year -- you get $2,600 a year less in Social Security. If you're in your 20s now, you get $4,700 ... less," the vice president said.
"The idea of changing, and change being in this case to cut the benefits for people without taking other action you could do to make it work is absolutely the wrong way. ...
"Whatever you call it, the bottom line is people are going to have to pay more money out of their pocket and the families I know and the families I come from, they don't have the money to pay more out."
The Romney campaign, which fired off 11 news releases during the debate and for several hours following, was silent about Social Security. And the Republican National Committee, which listed what it called Biden's "twisted" facts, also made no mention of Social Security.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare opened a campaign last month -- a national "truth tour" -- to urge voters to sign pledges to vote only for candidates to preserve the two programs.
Committee President and Chief Executive Officer Max Richtman said in a release:
"This election will likely define the future of the nation's social insurance safety net. The differences between most candidates in races from the White House to Congress on the future of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are stark. However, those policy differences are often hidden behind poll-tested language in which 'save' means slash and 'protect' means privatize.
"It's no wonder so many Americans, especially seniors, aren't sure what to believe. This national truth tour is designed to provide all voters with the facts. There are differing plans for the future of these programs -- which serve virtually every American family. Explaining how these plans could impact the middle-class is key to our voter-education strategy."
National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill says the Romney-Ryan plan "places future cuts to Social Security benefits on a fast track that Congress could not slow down" and would spell disaster for the elderly, especially women.