Washington The baby boomers' stampede for Social Security benefits has begun.
The nation's "first" baby boomer, a retired teacher from New Jersey, applied for Social Security benefits Monday, signaling the start of an expected avalanche of applications from the post World War II generation.
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue called it "America's silver tsunami."
Kathleen Casey-Kirschling applied for benefits over the Internet at an event hosted by Astrue. Casey-Kirschling was born one second after midnight Jan. 1, 1946, gaining her recognition as the first baby boomer - a generation of nearly 80 million born from 1946 to 1964, Astrue said.
"She's leading the way for her generation," Astrue told reporters.
Casey-Kirschling will be eligible for benefits after she turns 62 next year. She said she taught seventh-graders for 14 years at a school near Camden, N.J., before retiring and volunteering for the Red Cross in Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
She and her husband have since moved to the eastern shore of Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay.
"I think I'm just lucky to be at the top of the boom," she said.
An estimated 10,000 people a day will become eligible for Social Security benefits over the next two decades, Astrue said. The Social Security trust fund, if left alone, is projected to go broke in 2041.
But Astrue said he is optimistic that Congress will address the issue, perhaps after the 2008 presidential election. President Bush had proposed changes in Social Security to create private accounts, but the proposal went nowhere in Congress.
Last week, Bush's budget director called the growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid a "fiscal train wreck." The three entitlement programs make up nearly half of all federal spending, a share that is expected to grow.
A report issued last month by the Treasury Department said that some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases will need to be considered to permanently fix the Social Security shortfall. But White House officials stressed that Bush remains opposed to raising taxes.
Astrue acknowledged the political difficulties of addressing the issue, but said there is still time.
"There's no totally politically easy choice," Astrue said. "I'm not pushing any one answer."