I’ll bet lots of you recognize the acronym HCAN, and I’d further bet that most of you had never heard of it two years ago. Here’s another acronym you are going to get familiar with: ARA–because the Alliance for Retired Americans will be in the forefront of the upcoming battle to defend Social Security.
My blood pressure is already spiking–not a good thing at my age–because of the campaign by the right and by Blue Dogs to cripple the most successful social program this country has even seen.
“But … but…,” the wingers protest, with their palms spread to show their sincerity. “We hate to be forced to encroach on this beloved program. The times require it, though. The economic ship of state is foundering, and we must all sacrifice to save the country. Social Security is nearly insolvent; in this economy, seniors can’t expect the rest of us to carry them.”
Clamp your hand over your back pocket and listen to me: They’re lying.
For starters, Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit our government faces. Zero. Nada. Goose egg. Diddly squat. The opposite is true. Social Security built up such a surplus in preparation for the retirement of the Baby Boomers that its trust fund has been buying Treasury Bonds–in effect, lending money to the federal government for operating expenses. But Treasury Bonds are a better way to invest that surplus than sticking it under a mattress. They’re safe unless the entire government goes under.
And yet the Commission has the gall to include Social Security in talks about the deficit, thereby implying that this program has somehow contributed to our economic woes. Even including the program in those talks is a case of guilt by association, and it’s a damned calumny! Social Security bailed the government out by buying Treasury Bonds and now it’s taking the blame for our debt? I need a paper bag to breathe into.
It is true that thirty years down the line, if nothing is done, Social Security will be unable to pay retirees 100% of their benefits. There’s a simple, just, way to prevent that day from arriving, though: change or remove the cap on taxable income. Right now, everybody pays 6.2 percent of his income in FICA taxes, but only up to the first $106,000 a person earns. Do you earn more than $106,000. If not, you’re paying FICA on everything you earn. Most of us do. What I want to know is howcome the people who can best afford to pay 6.2 percent on everything they earn, those bringing in, say, 250 thou a year–or more–are the ones who pay FICA on only part of their earnings? Why do they get off easy while the people who pave their driveways, teach their children, ring up their purchase at Macy’s, and protect them from burglars pay it on every penny in their paychecks?
Raise the cap or, better yet, remove it. We could require the wealthier earners to pay, maybe, 3% FICA on everything from $106,000 to $306,000. Or 1% on everything from $106,000 to $450,000. There are a hundred different ways to get those better off to contribute more to the trust fund.
If we had the political will.
Well, there’s the rub. Dick Durbin, a member of the Commission, voted for the the co-chairs’ recommendations. What? I thought he was a good Democrat. And Barack Obama has embraced all the recommendations of the co-chairs of the Deficit Commission. That’s ALL of them, including:
- raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 and the early retirement age to 64
- reducing Social Security benefits for middle income workers, so that, for example, if someone applied for benefits at age 62, he would receive only about $583 instead of the $1,167 currently allowed
- reducing Social Security cost of living adjustments
Hold on. We’re in the middle of the Great Recession. It’s not uncommon for someone to look for work for two years, and we’re contemplating keeping older workers hanging onto their jobs for an extra two years? Right. When Social Security was first enacted, part of the rationale for it was that “superannuation” would help the economy. In other words, older workers could retire–but with enough money to help keep the economic engine pumping–thus making room for younger people in the workforce.
Similarly, the Commission co-chairs–and Durbin and Obama–want to give middle income elderly people half to two/thirds as much money to live on AND SPEND as we have been giving them. Now there’s a half cocked idea for keeping the economy on the move. Those proposing these draconian cuts should know that, according to the ARA, “For one third of seniors, Social Security provides nearly all of their income.” These are people with no 401(k)s to fall back on. You slash that money out of their budgets and you are simultaneously slicing it right out of our economy.
The Alliance for Retired Americans is part of a progressive coalition that will be fighting this nonsense. ARA, three million strong nationwide and 60,000 strong in Missouri, aims to educate its members (you can join for a mere $10) and any seniors it can reach out to. Since seniors vote more than younger people, it’s important to get the correct information to them. In states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois, where ARA has grown the most, it has been credited with swinging some elections. Judith Parker, a St. Louis activist, is busting butt to see that Missouri joins the ranks of the states where seniors know the score and vote accordingly.
Parker will tell you that Social Security is enormously popular, as we saw when Bush tried to privatize it in 2005. We’re counting on that popularity. It ought to slow down the rush to slice into the program. I mean, put yourself in John Boehner’s shoes. Does he really want to hang an albatross around the 2012 Republican presidential candidate? Because bringing legislation to the House floor that would, for example, raise the retirement age to 69 wouldn’t do the GOP ticket any good when the campaign starts revving up a year from now. Not that I’m saying we who want to protect Social Security can take it easy. Here’s a reason we can’t: Congressman Paul Ryan–yes, he of the Ryan Plan–will head the Budget Committee in the House come January. He may be unable to resist introducing bills that chip away at Social Security.
The left is organizing to resist the proposed cuts, and we stand a good chance of preserving this life saving program intact for future generations. After all, it’s an assault that will be mighty unpopular with voters. Seniors don’t deserve to be mugged like this, and they’ll scream bloody murder. Hell, it’s not just an assault on seniors. One in SIX Americans get Social Security, and those who don’t will need it someday. Besides the moral argument that we should not slash the income of the workers who built this economy and who contributed money to the trust fund in good faith, we can also argue that this assault will harm the country’s deficit spending problem rather than help by carving a huge chunk of spending power out of the population.
Too bad it looks like we’ll be fighting this battle without the help of the nominal head of our party or the likes of Dick Durbin.
photo of Ida Mae Fuller receiving the first Social Security check is courtesy of Illinois Social Security blog