By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Retired school teacher Kathleen Casey-Kirschling on Monday became the first ripple in a "silver tsunami" of retiring baby boomers applying for pension benefits that threatens to overwhelm U.S. government finances.
Casey-Kirschling was born one second after midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, and will receive her first Social Security check in February 2008 as the first wave of baby boomers turns 62 next year and becomes eligible for early retirement benefits.
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said the agency is bracing for some 80 million Americans to apply for retirement benefits over the next two decades.
"We are already feeling enormous pressure from baby boomers being in their peak disability years and now we're preparing for so many of them to file for retirement," Astrue said at a press conference with Casey-Kirschling.
The system also includes benefits for disabled workers.
Part of that preparation is to encourage boomers to apply for benefits online at www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices. Astrue said the roughly 40 minutes it takes to apply from home is more convenient and less time-consuming than traveling to the local Social Security office.
Because Casey-Kirschling is retiring early, her monthly benefit is reduced to 75 percent of what she would have received had she waited for full retirement at age 66.
The age of full retirement for Social Security is gradually rising from 65 for those born before 1938 to 67 for people born after 1959 under a 1983 law that was enacted to shore up the pension program's finances.
Social Security, which referred to the looming crisis as a "silver tsunami," is facing enormous financial pressures from the generation born in the aftermath of World War Two. The latest report by the program's trustees said by 2017, Social Security will begin to pay more benefits than it receives in taxes. By 2041, the trust fund is projected to be exhausted.
Lawmakers have been talking about fixing the problem for years, but failed amid partisan bickering over a plan by President George W. Bush to partially privatize Social Security.
"There is no reason to have any immediate panic," Astrue said. "I and most people who are really familiar with the situation are confident that there will be some pain along the way, but we will get there and Social Security will be there for future generations."
Casey-Kirschling, who taught food and nutrition to seventh-graders in New Jersey, said she is also confident lawmakers will eventually tackle the retirement program's long-term financial problems.
"I do think they will come up with a solution," she said.
Budget-watchers in the U.S. Congress have been contemplating forming an independent bipartisan commission to review ways to fund the growing number of pensioners. So far the idea has not gotten off the ground and no decisions on program changes are expected at least until the next president takes office in January, 2009.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)