New Trump rule limits access to Social Security benefits earned by non-English speakers

[The Hill] The Trump administration on Monday finalized a rule that would limit access to Social Security disability benefits for non-English speakers.

“It is important that we have an up-to-date disability program,” Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul said.

“The workforce and work opportunities have changed, and outdated regulations need to be revised to reflect today’s world,” he added.

One of the steps necessary to claim disability benefits is an assessment of an applicant’s education, part of an effort to check whether they have the capacity to find work outside the scope of their medical condition. Until now, the education assessment would take into account whether the applicant spoke English.

The new rule, which goes into effect April 27, would remove English speaking as a factor of educational attainment, making it more difficult for non-English speakers to qualify for the aid.

Democrats slammed the decision.

“With this rule, the Trump administration will deny people the Social Security disability benefits they’ve earned,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

“For years, Social Security’s rules recognized that for an older worker applying for disability benefits with severe health conditions, and with no or little transferable job skills, the inability to communicate in English poses an additional barrier to work. The new rule will end [the Social Security Administration’s] consideration of this obstacle,” he added.

The rule, he estimated, would affect some 10,000 people a year.

Full story: The Hill »

Bloomberg Spent a Decade Demanding Cuts to Social Security. His Campaign Plan Doesn’t Rule Them Out.

Image: 401kcalculator.org via Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/ayZi8V

[The Intercept] A review of Michael Bloomberg’s many statements on Social Security over the last 10 years makes two things clear.

First, Bloomberg deeply and sincerely believes that the well-being of the United States requires cuts to Social Security benefits.

Second, Bloomberg has no idea how Social Security works. Instead, his head is filled with a hodgepodge of right-wing talking points about the program.

On Sunday, Bloomberg’s presidential campaign released his official proposal for Social Security and retirement more generally. It’s written to give the impression that if elected, Bloomberg would not cut Social Security for anyone, and in fact, would expand benefits for everyone. However, the plan leaves the door open to benefit cuts for some beneficiaries — just as Bloomberg has advocated for years.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

The former New York City mayor’s plan does include some ideas that, from the perspective of America’s middle and working class, are a big improvement. He calls for upping Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments, because there appears to be a higher rate of inflation for the goods and services needed by the elderly than by the younger population. He also advocates an increase in benefits for the poorest beneficiaries.

Interestingly, Bloomberg also proposes that the U.S. create a new “public-option retirement savings plan, with automatic employer and employee contributions.” This would essentially be a government-run 401(k) plan for all workers who don’t have access to one through their jobs — including a matching government contribution akin to those provided by many employers.

While this may sound something like President George W. Bush’s 2005 proposal for privatizing Social Security, it’s significantly superior. Under Bloomberg’s plan, the accounts would be run by the government, allowing for super-low fees that would be collected by Washington. Bush wanted the accounts to be run by Wall Street, which would have generated a gusher of high fees flowing to downtown Manhattan. (At the time, a financial blogger wrote that a former co-worker at a huge investment bank told him, “I want that dumb public money coming across my desk.”)

But the rest of Bloomberg’s plan must be read skeptically. The campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg explicitly rule out any cuts to Social Security benefits.

By contrast, Bloomberg’s proposal does not. Bloomberg’s campaign did not respond when asked whether he is taking all benefit cuts off the table.

Instead, Bloomberg uses language similar to a 2010 proposal from Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the chairs of a deficit reduction commission set up by President Barack Obama. Bloomberg vociferously supported the commission at the time.

According to Bloomberg’s proposal, “Mike will strengthen entitlement programs.” Simpson and Bowles said their mixture of minor benefit increases and significant cuts would “strengthen Social Security.” Today, Bloomberg wants to “put the system on sound financial footing.” In 2010, Simpson and Bowles proclaimed that their goal was to “ensure Social Security’s soundness.”

Like Bloomberg today, Simpson and Bowles proposed increasing Social Security benefits for the poorest beneficiaries. Unlike Bloomberg, they explicitly advocated cuts that would have reduced the benefits of those further up the income ladder. This would have reduced overall costs and made the program more like traditional welfare — an outcome that would have weakened political support for Social Security and made it vulnerable to further cuts in the future.

The lack of a straightforward disavowal of cuts from the Bloomberg campaign, combined with Bloomberg’s history, suggests that his plan shares significant genetics with Simpson-Bowles.

Continued on: The Intercept »

Millionaires Stop Paying Into Social Security for the Year, Highlighting Need to Scrap Payroll Tax Cap

Image: Philip Taylor via Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/bDdcmL

[Common Dreams] Today, not even two full months into 2020, millionaires will stop paying into Social Security for the year due to the program’s payroll tax cap.

The cap limits annual wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax to the first $137,700. Sarah Rawlins, program associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), wrote Tuesday that the cap means “someone who makes $1,000,000 per year stops paying into the program on February 19, 2020.”

“That makes a millionaire’s effective tax rate well below the 6.2% of income that most Americans pay,” Rawlins noted. “Instead, it is less than 1% of a millionaire’s income. The Social Security tax is only levied on wages, excluding income from other sources like capital gains, meaning those with wages over the cap likely have an effective tax rate even lower than this estimate.”

“The burden of Social Security taxes falls more heavily on those who make less,” Rawlins added.

Rawlins suggested that one way to make the Social Security financing system more progressive is “scrapping the payroll tax cap entirely and making everyone pay the same tax rate.”

“Social Security gives retirement, disability, and survivor benefits to almost 20 percent of the U.S. population, including at least six million children,” Rawlins said. “But it could do better.”

Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) Social Security 2100 Act, introduced in the House in January 2019 with 208 Democratic co-sponsors, would apply the payroll tax to wages above $400,000.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed subjecting all income above $250,000 in order to “expand benefits across-the-board, including a $1,300 a year benefit increase for seniors with incomes of $16,000 a year or less.”

As Common Dreams reported last December, an analysis by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that Social Security has become increasingly regressive in recent decades due to a number of factors, including soaring economic inequality.

“The program’s become less progressive,” said Jim Roosevelt, a former associate commissioner for retirement policy at the Social Security Administration and a grandson of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935.

“It doesn’t take care of the people at the lower- and middle-income levels as well as it was intended do,” Roosevelt said, “and it needs to be updated.”

Bloomberg (Still) Wants to Cut Social Security

Michael Bloomberg | Image: Azi Paybarah, https://flic.kr/p/61DFNL

[Common Dreams] Of all the Democrats contending for the presidential nomination, Michael Bloomberg is the worst choice to debate Donald Trump on an overwhelmingly important issue: Social Security’s future. Bloomberg’s position on Social Security is to the right of Trump’s stated position — and widely out of step with even Republican voters, let alone Democrats.

Bloomberg has a long history of supporting cuts to Social Security, including raising the retirement age. He’s disparaged Social Security, one of the most popular and successful government programs in history, by comparing it to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bowles-Simpson austerity commission, which tried to jam through huge Social Security cuts behind closed doors.

Now, Bloomberg is running to be the Democratic nominee for President — even though he was a Republican for years, and only became a Democrat in 2018. For months, Bloomberg was the only major candidate without a Social Security plan. Now, he’s finally released one.

Bloomberg’s Social Security plan is very carefully worded. Unlike Bloomberg’s past statements, the plan does not overtly endorse Social Security cuts. That’s no surprise, since cutting Social Security is incredibly unpopular with voters across the political spectrum. But a close read reveals that Bloomberg hasn’t changed his views. He’s just gotten smarter about hiding them.

The plan says that Bloomberg would “consider options for preserving and strengthening Social Security’s long-term finances, while maintaining and enhancing benefits for the neediest recipients.” Bloomberg does not specify what these “options” are. But what he doesn’t say speaks volumes.

Politicians that want to cut Social Security but don’t want to be held accountable at the ballot box think they can sound reasonable, while hiding their true views, by arguing that all options should be on the table. This is a cynical way of avoiding taking a public position. Moreover, it is a conservative dream to maintain benefits for the poorest Americans while slashing them for the middle class, transforming Social Security so that it’s no longer earned insurance. Social Security’s earned nature is what makes it so effective and politically strong.

When their public positions are popular, politicians have no trouble articulating them. No politician hides support for cutting middle class taxes. Similarly, every other Democratic candidate has said unequivocally that they support expanding Social Security, and oppose cutting it. They all support restoring Social Security to long range balance by requiring those at the top to pay their fair share.

Even Donald Trump has said as recently as the State of the Union that he won’t cut Social Security. This, of course, is a lie, since a week later he released a budget that does cut it.  But, he is certain to keep lying in the lead up to the election.

It wouldn’t have been difficult for Bloomberg to release a plan that unequivocally rules out cuts. Bernie Sanders’ plan does, as does Elizabeth Warren’s. Pete Buttigieg’s plan says that he would “fully protect Social Security for the next generation without cutting anyone’s benefits by ensuring the most fortunate pay their fair share.” Joe Biden’s plan says that he would “put the program on a path to long-term solvency by asking Americans with especially high wages to pay the same taxes on those earnings that middle-class families pay.”

Neither Biden nor Buttigieg should be fully trusted on Social Security. Like Bloomberg, Biden has a record of supporting cuts. Buttigieg recently made the error of embracing austerity economics. That said, both Biden and Buttigieg make it clear on their websites that they are running on protecting and expanding, never cutting, Social Security.

For those who have followed the Social Security debate closely, Bloomberg’s words about “options” are a clear signal. His language is insider speak, a wink and a nod to the donor class that he, like them, favors cutting Social Security. His promises to “strengthen” and “preserve” Social Security are meaningless. Those words are frequently used by billionaire elites like Bloomberg as code for “cut Social Security to save it.” Nor does Bloomberg’s support of targeted Social Security increases inspire confidence. Bowles-Simpson also included targeted benefit increases, alongside huge cuts to overall benefits. So did Paul Ryan’s plans.

To get right on Social Security, Bloomberg must repudiate his past support for cuts. He must pledge that he will never support cutting a single penny of current or future benefits. Unless that happens, supporters of Social Security should consider him an enemy of the program —  and vote accordingly in the Democratic primary. 

Nancy J. Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. Her latest book is The Truth About Social Security. She is also the author of The Battle for Social Security and co-author of Social Security Works!

Linda Benesch is the Communications Director at Social Security Works, a national organization fighting to address our nation’s retirement income crisis by protecting and expanding Social Security.

Social Security: Where Do the 2020 Candidates Stand?

[New York Times] No topic is more important than Social Security to the well-being of today’s older voters — and younger workers who will come to rely on the program. Nearly all Americans pay into the program and can expect to receive a benefit. It is the largest retirement income source for a majority of older households.

Just 52 percent of households owned retirement accounts in 2016, according to Federal Reserve data. And at a time when fewer retirees can rely on traditional pensions, Social Security will be the only source of guaranteed lifetime income for most workers. Benefits are adjusted annually for inflation — a unique feature that adds substantially to Social Security’s value.

Read more: New York Times »

Trump’s audacious new plan to cut Medicaid, explained

President Donald J. Trump with (clockwise from left) Ms.Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Secretary Tom Price, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Vice President Mike Pence on March 14, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House. Image: Flickr Creative Commons | https://flic.kr/p/U3Tp7r

[Vox] President Donald Trump’s administration is taking its most audacious step yet to roll back Medicaid, with a new plan that would cap spending for the government program upon which poor Americans depend for health insurance.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced on Thursday they would accept applications from states that want to set up a Medicaid block grant, a long-held goal of ideological conservatives who want to scale back the social safety net, and one deployed successfully to severely limit cash welfare benefits in the 1990s.

These spending caps would fundamentally change how the program is financed, ending Medicaid’s days as an open-ended entitlement by putting new hard limits on how much the government is willing to spend on health care for certain enrollees. Medicaid would no longer pay whatever is necessary to provide medical care to the people in or near poverty who qualify for its benefits. Instead, spending would be limited in states that got a waiver from the federal government, and they could impose cuts on benefits.

Trump has already tried to fundamentally alter the Medicaid program through work requirements, though he’s been stopped in the courts. But the block grants represent an even more basic remaking of Medicaid on his watch, one that would lead to spending cuts and fewer benefits.

The block grants are also, like work requirements, a roundabout way to roll back Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid specifically. Under the guidance released by CMS, it would be benefits for people newly eligible under the health care law — mostly childless adults and parents who are living in or near poverty — that would be subject to the block grants. In that context, despite Trump’s campaign promise not to cut Medicaid, these policies make sense as a means to an end for the conservatives whom Trump has put in charge of his health department.

Block grants could run into trouble in the courts, just as Medicaid work requirements already have, if judges find they are contrary to the purpose of the Medicaid program (which is supposed to be providing medical benefits to vulnerable people).

But Trump’s latest steps to pare back Medicaid, taken early in an election year, are a reminder that his administration has proven steadily committed to cutting federal health care spending.

Read more [Vox]»

Working Longer Is A Lame Answer For Failing Pensions. We Need A Gray New Deal.

Image: Scott Lewis via Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/qZzNYX

[Forbes.com] It’s a journalism cliche that reporters always highlight the bad: they never write about the planes that don’t crash or the companies that don’t lie and cheat. But the topic of working into old age seems to be one of the most consistent exceptions. Most every example of journalism about working longer is of someone for whom working in their 70s, 80s, 90s is full of joy; everything has gone right! 

Often these stories have not a single proviso that working longer in a nice job—a job that doesn’t break down health and spirits or take away from important end-of-life leisure—might be a scarce privilege that class status affords. 

For example, John D. Stoll began a Wall Street Journal article last week on “the end of retirement” with the following: “It took about six years of annual asset reviews with my financial planner…” When I read that, I knew the focus would not be on the typical worker approaching retirement. Instead, it focused on the ability of a privileged slice of professional workers to work as long as they please, however they please.

Most Americans don’t have that luxury. Without decent pensions, working longer is not the answer for most people. For the first time in modern history, the American elderly will be relatively worse off than their parents and grandparents. Many will turn to work—any kind of work. The failing do-it-yourself American pension system will cause humanitarian and political crises unless we find a better way.

Read more: Forbes.com »