A 2011 photo shows an exhibit at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum that commemorated the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act in August 2010. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum | via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Along with the issues at the top of the agenda in the 2022 election campaigns — threats to democracy, concern about inflation, reproductive rights, public safety, climate change and conflicts over education — advocates for Social Security are drawing attention to what they see as potential threats to the federal retirement benefit system and related programs.
Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have put them on an agenda for the GOP, and Democrats have jumped on the subject in response, charging that the Republicans will cut the programs if they take control of Congress in November.
While the Republicans have objected to the Democrats’ claims, Social Security advocates defend the characterization.
There has been a decades-long campaign against the 87-year-old Social Security program, says Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. Deficit hawks and right-wing think tanks have been promoting what Altman argues is a false narrative that Social Security is on the precipice of collapse and should be shrunk, or eliminated, as a federal retirement program.
Social Security Works and a collection of other advocacy groups contend the opposite is true. Social Security does face short-term financial challenges to ensure that future benefits will be fully covered, but Altman believes that can be fixed relatively easily.
“As important as making sure that there’s enough financing to pay benefits is — that’s a means to an end,” says Altman. “The end is to provide economic security. Social Security’s one shortcoming is that it’s too low.”
She anticipates a time when Social Security could become even more important for younger generations of workers.
“We’ve got a looming retirement income crisis, where younger people are going to be more dependent on Social Security because private pensions are disappearing,” Altman says.
Altman’s background has helped shape her advocacy for Social Security. In 1982 she served as an assistant to Alan Greenspan when he chaired a bipartisan commission that proposed a series of changes to Social Security to help shore up the system. The revisions were enacted the next year. Altman went on to be a tax lawyer and taught at the Harvard University Law School and the Kennedy School of Government.
Altman co-founded Social Security Works in 2010 and chairs the Strengthen Social Security coalition, made up of more than 300 organizations. She also chairs the board of the Pension Rights Center and is a member of the bipartisan federal Social Security Advisory Board.
Altman visited Wisconsin last week to connect with groups mobilizing Democratic voters in November. “It’s a very simple message,” she said in an interview in Madison. “Democrats want to expand Social Security. Republicans want to cut Social Security. And if you care about Social Security, you should think about that when you vote.”
After taking part in a round table conversation with Altman, Billy Feitlinger, retired executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans, told the Wisconsin Examiner, “Younger generations should have the same quality of retirement as people like myself.”
Another round table participant was Nino Amato, retired executive director of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups. “The biggest concern we have is Social Security is getting lost” among the election issues this fall, Amato says.
The dispute over Social Security’s future is because of the looming gap between how much money the program takes in and how much it pays out.
Social Security is funded by the payroll tax, 6.2% of each current worker’s paycheck, matched by an equal amount paid by the employer. The money collected is paid out to current retirees.
Because of demographic shifts over the last several decades, there are fewer people to pay into the program compared with the number of recipients collecting benefits. Current projections indicate that by 2030, the revenues collected will fall short, so that people would be able to collect only 80% of the benefits they qualify for.
Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, drew up an agenda for the 2022 midterm campaigns that included a provision to require Congress to vote every five years to reauthorize all federal legislation or it would be repealed. There was no exception listed for Social Security or other programs.
Johnson, running for a third Senate term this year, has proposed putting Social Security in the federal discretionary budget, where it would be voted on every year. In a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, President Joe Biden called that tantamount to putting Social Security “on the chopping block” each year.
Democratic warnings that the GOP proposals are schemes to cut Social Security have been dinged by FactCheck.org and the Washington Post. But advocates contend that skeptical fact-checkers have gotten tripped up by semantics or are failing to look more deeply into the history of resistance to the program.
The ideological opposition that has dogged Social Security since its inception persists, giving rise to periodic proposals to tie the system to the stock market or privatize it in other ways.
An attempt by President George W. Bush to move in that direction in 2005 ran aground in the face of stiff public objection. Despite Social Security’s overwhelming popularity, however, the ideological opposition has persisted.
“You will not hear a politician say, the way they used to, that it’s socialism or it’s not the appropriate role of government,” says Altman, but in her view the appetite of those who favor cutting the program remains strong.
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who would be in line to become House Speaker if the Republicans get a majority in the chamber, “just came out this week saying that they were going to use [raising the federal] debt limit as a hostage” to force federal spending cuts, Altman says. McCarthy would not rule out extending those cuts to Social Security and Medicare, according to the Washington Post.
Altman suggests the most likely scenario for Republicans to force such changes if they gain control of Congress would be to assemble a bipartisan panel that would develop a package of changes behind closed doors, perhaps as part of a deal to raise the federal debt limit, demanding an up-or-down vote without amendments. “This is too big a program and too important a program to not reform or modify in the open,” she says.
Republicans are already on record against raising taxes to help Social Security, Altman observes. “There are two possibilities — you can require more income, or you can lower the outgo, or you can have some combination of the two,” she says. “And if they’re saying no more income, then obviously, it’s going to be less in outgo.”
Johnson’s suggestion that Social Security should be part of the annual budgeting cycle “completely undermines what it’s supposed to be there for,” Altman says — captured in the name: providing security, and relieving recipients of the anxiety of wondering whether they can count on the program to support them from year to year.
“Making it discretionary just changes it — it’s got to compete with every other expenditure. It’s subject to back and forth negotiation,” Altman says.
In his second debate with his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, earlier this month, Johnson said, “Let me be very clear — I want to save Social Security. I want to save Medicare.”
Altman dismisses that disclaimer. “My attitude is, it doesn’t need saving,” she says.
The shortfall can be addressed in part by removing the cap on how much income is covered by the payroll tax, she says. Currently, that stands at $147,000 and it will rise automatically to $160,200 in 2023. There have been additional proposals to further bolster revenues focusing on the highest-income segment of the population.
The 1983 changes that the Greenspan commission worked on were expected to fully fund the program for much longer. That was upended, Altman says, by “the enormous income and wealth inequality in the 1990s.”
Advocates generally oppose means-testing the program that would make higher-income people made ineligible, however. “It becomes a nightmare to administer,” Altman says. It also undermines support for the program.
Social Security has been so popular because it enables recipients to feel “something positive about yourself — that you’ve worked long enough to claim benefits,” she says. “With means-tested programs, you’ve got to prove you can’t get along without community helpers.”
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