Category Archives: Social Security

Delivering on the promise of America’s pension plan: Seven Social Security reforms Congress should enact now

Social Security benefits are crucial to the economic security of more than 1.3 million Washington residents and their families, and contribute significantly to the economic stability of every region of the state.

Yet some members of Congress are threatening once again to cut Social Security to pay for tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. Raising the retirement age or making other cuts to Social Security is the wrong approach.

Instead, federal lawmakers should act now to “scrap the cap” on taxable earnings and take six other steps to ensure the program meets the needs all workers, families and retirees for decades to come.

Read more: Economic Opportunity Institute

Why (at age 83!) Social Security is one of the nation’s most successful, effective, and popular programs

Eighty-three years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, Social Security remains one of the nation’s most successful, effective, and popular programs.

Social Security provides a foundation of income on which workers can build to plan for their retirement. It also provides valuable social insurance protection to workers who become disabled and to families whose breadwinner dies.

Though most people understand how much elderly Americans need and value Social Security, fewer understand its importance for children and their families. About 6 million children under age 18 lived in families that received income from Social Security in 2017. That number included nearly 3 million children who received their own benefits.

Children can qualify for benefits if a breadwinning parent dies, becomes disabled, or retires. Social Security also indirectly helps children who live with a parent or other relative who receives benefits, which can help the whole family stay afloat — particularly in cases of premature death or life-changing illness or injury.

Social Security is one of the biggest child poverty fighters of any program, lifting 1.7 million children out of poverty in 2015 using the comprehensive Supplemental Poverty Measure. Only the refundable tax credits for working families (the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit) and SNAP (formerly foods stamps) lift more children out of poverty, as the chart shows.

Read More: Top 10 Facts about Social Security (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) »

Stop Trump’s political interference in Social Security disability benefits!

The Trump administration’s latest attack on Social Security comes in the form of an executive order, which undermines the impartiality of judges who oversee Social Security disability hearings. Already, over tens of thousands of grassroots activists have called on Congress to protect Social Security from Trump’s political interference.

Members of Congress are taking action!

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and David Cicilline (D-RI) have introduced an amendment that would block Trump’s executive order. This amendment would ensure fair hearings in the processing of millions of Social Security disability claims, and protect the independence of Administrative Law Judges.

Click here to become a co-signer of the Scott-Cummings-Cicilline amendment. Tell Congress that a vote against this amendment is a vote against Social Security.

Trump’s executive order―which seeks to undermine experienced, qualified judges and instead appoint Trump loyalists to the bench―is part of a coordinated attack on Social Security and Americans with disabilities.

Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are trying to divide us, pitting current and future retires against people with disabilities. The truth is, we have one Social Security system, and we need to protect it from political interference!

Become a co-signer of the Scott-Cummings-Cicilline amendment and demand Congress defend Social Security from the Trump administration’s interference.

Workers earn their Social Security protections with every paycheck, including the right to monthly benefits if they lose their income by becoming disabled. And Donald Trump’s executive order undermines the rights of all working people―threatening our livelihood. We must stand together to defend the future of Social Security.

Thank you,

Michael Phelan
Social Security Works

Social Security Disability Insurance Applications And Awards Shrinking Even Faster Than Expected

As The New York Times reports, the number of applicants for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has fallen even faster since 2015 than the Social Security Administration (SSA) expected. In fact, disability applications and benefit awards have fallen for nearly a decade, even if some government officials haven’t acknowledged it. But the shift is significant, and it’s good news for SSDI’s finances.

SSDI applications and awards have fallen by over 25 percent since 2010 (see chart), while the number of beneficiaries has dropped by over 600,000 over the past four years. And Social Security’s trustees project that the share of Americans receiving SSDI will remain flat over the next 20 years.


SSA’s actuaries and other experts predicted this downward trend. Though the number of beneficiaries grew for most of SSDI’s history, that mostly reflected demographic factors: the population increased; baby boomers aged into late middle age, when the odds of becoming disabled rise sharply; and more women joined the workforce, paid into Social Security, and earned coverage. Meanwhile, the rise in Social Security’s retirement age to 66 means that workers who become disabled remain in SSDI longer before switching into retirement benefits. Then the Great Recession and slow recovery caused a surge in SSDI applications (though most applicants are denied benefits), while the program received less tax income than previously projected.

The receipt of SSDI benefits as well as program costs have since fallen as demographic and economic pressures eased. As more boomers reach retirement, the number of workers receiving SSDI declined. Men and women now qualify for benefits in nearly equal numbers. Likewise, SSDI applications fell significantly as the economy recovered.

In the last few years, SSDI applications and awards have fallen even faster than predicted. Social Security’s actuaries note that the drop in the number of beneficiaries has been steeper than in past economic recoveries, and they’re trying to understand why. One factor is SSA budget cuts, which forced field office closures that led to “large and persistent reductions” in the number of disability beneficiaries. The cuts also contributed to a record-breaking backlog in disability appeals, which may deter applicants. Another factor is falling allowance rates for disability appeals. The trustees have been rightly cautious in interpreting short-term trends, and they assume that the declines will taper off in the next several years.

SSDI’s financial outlook has improved significantly as a result of declining enrollment. As the program shrank, its costs fell as a share of taxable payroll, and that share is expected to remain stable over the long term. This month’s Social Security trustees’ report projects that SSDI’s trust fund will remain fully funded through 2032 — a full decade later than the 2022 date that the trustees projected three years ago.

SSDI’s financial improvement means that policymakers have time to develop a comprehensive plan to address Social Security’s long-term funding shortfall before the combined reserves for the retirement and disability programs are depleted in 2034 — that is, a plan that protects the millions of workers who rely on earned disability benefits when they become too sick or hurt to work and support their families.

[Original: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]

Cash-Strapped Social Security Needs More Funds to Improve Customer Service

The House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee may consider this week its 2019 funding bill, which funds the Social Security Administration (SSA) — and, when it does, it needs to continue the recent progress in reversing years of damaging cuts to SSA’s budget.

SSA’s operating budget fell nearly 9 percent between 2010 and 2018, after adjusting for inflation — even as the number of beneficiaries (including retirement, survivors, and disability benefits) grew by nearly 15 percent. The 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight annual caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending drove extremely tight SSA budgets, undermining its customer service by forcing it to close field offices, shorten office hours, and cut staff.

Policymakers increased SSA funding earlier this year, a step in the right direction but not nearly enough to make up the ground SSA has lost since 2010. The 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act raised the BCA budget caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, and policymakers responded by boosting SSA’s 2018 operating budget by $480 million or 4.5 percent.  However:

  • More than half the increase, $280 million, will go for much-needed information technology improvements, which will fund about 40 percent of SSA’s multi-year IT modernization plan.
  • Another $100 million will help address the nearly 1-million-case backlog in disability appeals by letting the agency hold roughly 50,000 more hearings.
  • Just $100 million of the increase will go toward front-line service for Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, and the other programs SSA supports.  SSA needs over three times this amount simply to keep up with fixed costs like rent and employee health insurance.

So even with the increased funding, SSA is still struggling to keep up with rising demands, and its customer service problems continue. The agency has started another round of field office closures, prompting bipartisan concern in Congress.

As the House Appropriations Committee noted earlier this year, “The high volume of visitors, combined with factors such as complex workloads, shortened public operating hours, and staff shortages, have led to increased wait times in both field offices and the National 800 number.” These problems reflect nearly a decade in which policymakers starved SSA of resources, and they can’t reverse the cumulative funding cuts in a single year. They should, however, continue to increase SSA’s funding in 2019 to ensure that taxpayers and beneficiaries receive the high-quality service they’ve earned.


Original: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The Bottom Line on Social Security’s Bottom Line

Social Security CardThe 2018 Social Security Trustees Report is out, weighing in at a somewhat-intimidating 270 pages (!). But if you don’t want to wade through it, here’s the bottom line on Social Security’s bottom line: it’s in good shape – and with a few legislative changes, could be even better.

A large (and still growing) surplus means Social Security is fully funded for at least the next decade-and-a-half. The Social Security Trust Fund balance stood at $2.89 trillion at the close of 2017, with an annual surplus of $44.1 billion. The program can pay all benefits to beneficiaries, as well as associated administrative costs, for the next 16 years – and with no changes, 79 percent of all program costs after 2034.

It’s important to remember that Social Security will keep on paying benefits even if the Trust Fund is depleted – and there’s a pretty straightforward way for Congress to avoid any reduction in future benefits for today’s younger workers: Social Security can fully pay all scheduled benefits for the foreseeable future if Congress ensures the wealthy pay their fair share. Currently, workers and their employers each pay 6.2 percent of wages toward Social Security – but there’s a cap: high-earners don’t pay anything on wages over $128,400.

According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, Congress could extend the Trust Fund’s surplus until 2087 by simply scrapping that cap, so the wealthy pay Social Security taxes on all of their income – like the rest of Americans already do!

If those facts come as a surprise, you may be one of the millions of Americans who have been subjected to a relentless campaign to convince them Social Security is in crisis and won’t be there when they retire.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security is not only the largest, best-known and most efficient retirement, survivors, and disability insurance program in America’s history; it is also the nation’s most secure and conservatively invested public trust.

What’s more: Social Security doesn’t just work – it works well!

  • In Washington, nearly 1.3 million state residents of all ages receive Social Security benefits. That’s 18 percent of our state’s population who in turn provide income for 30 percent of the state’s households.
  • Social Security is a remarkably effective anti-poverty program: Social Security dramatically reduces poverty among the elderly in Washington, from 35.1 to 7.4 percent. Retirement benefits are modest, averaging $1,379/month ($16,549/year) – but without them, an additional 301,000 Washingtonians age 65 or older would have lived in poverty in 2015.
  • Social Security protects children and families against tragedy: For 98 percent of Washington’s more than 1.6 million children and families, Social Security is the primary insurance protection in the event a parent or spouse dies or is disabled. In 2016, over 109,000 widow(er)s and children in Washington received an average $1,219/month ($14,631/year); over 211,000 disabled workers and their families received an average $1,061/month ($12,737/year).
  • Social Security bolsters local economies across the state: In 2016, Social Security benefits were equivalent to 5.2 percent of Washington’s total personal income, and generated more than $31 billion in economic activity, 192,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in state and local tax revenue. In December of that year, nearly $1.7 billion in Social Security benefits went directly to local economies across the state, from King County (288,000 people, $406 million) to Garfield County (660 people, $808,000).

Social Security does this in every state across the nation. So why is an entire political party and its leaders dedicated to pulling the economic rug out from under millions of Americans? To trade Social Security for more tax cuts to benefit the super-wealthy.

Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t “afford” Social Security: in 2018, Social Security payments will be just 4.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Even when future benefits are at their highest (the year 2095!) it will constitute just 6 percent of GDP – considerably less than other industrialized nations spend on equivalent programs.

Reducing Social Security benefits, limiting cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) and/or increasing the retirement age will diminish economic security for nearly every American. It would disproportionately affect low- and middle-income families, women and all workers of color who, unlike wealthy individuals, often do not have significant retirement savings and work in more difficult and physically demanding jobs.

It’s time for Congress to expand and improve Social Security – so it continues protecting our families and communities, and creates a more equitable and secure future for us all – by:

Raising benefits overall: Adjusting the benefit formula to raise benefits for those who have had careers in low-wage occupations – such as childcare, restaurant service, or home health care. This would better protect the financial security of people just scraping by.

Protecting the very elderly: Living to extreme old age, outliving a spouse or not having a spouse greatly increases the risk of poverty. “Bump-ups” in benefits for seniors living past a certain age and increasing benefits for single elderly people would help reduce financial insecurity.

Honoring time caring for family: Caring for children or aging family members can cause many people, especially women, to reduce their hours or stop working, greatly affecting their retirement benefits. Reducing the number of years’ earnings used to calculate retirement benefits from 35 to 30 can eliminate this caregiving penalty. It would also help Millennials and others who have had reduced access to employment in economic downturns and those who’ve suffered the brunt of racist mass incarceration policies.

Restoring student survivor benefits: Before 1981, children of retired, deceased, or disabled workers continued receiving benefits through age 22 if they attended college. Now benefits end once a young person turns 18 and finishes high school. Reinstating college benefits could help children and their families achieve their dreams and reduce socioeconomic barriers to lifetime opportunities.

Adopting the CPI-E inflation index: Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average monthly benefit increases of just over 1 percent per year. Costs for Medicare and other essentials are rising faster than that. Adopting the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, or CPI-E, would be a more accurate means of calculating adequate Social Security COLAs.

Restoring office access & services: The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) expenses are self-funded and account for less than one penny of every dollar spent. While demand for SSA services (and staff workloads) have risen to record highs, over the past six years, the SSA’s operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent (after adjusting for inflation) due to Congressional budget cuts. This has resulted in the closure of one field office and the loss of 776 employees in Washington. Restoring full funding would help ensure people have dependable and easily accessible in-person service at Social Security offices.

Take a minute to get in touch with your elected representatives in the House and Senate – no matter their political stripes – to remind them that Social Security is important to you and your community, and to encourage them to sign on to legislation that will expand and improve Social Security.

The Republican Plan for Paid Family Leave: Cannibalize Social Security

That so-called “pro-family” agenda of today’s Republican party? Not so much. Their latest idea: cannibalize Social Security to fund paid family leave, and have parents work longer into old age (or take lower benefits).

It’s a backdoor attempt, both shrewd and crass, to privatize and cut Social Security — one that would add yet another financial penalty to the list that women pay when they become mothers.

Via the New York Times:

Paid leave for new parents, long a Democratic cause, has become a Republican one, too. But policymakers don’t agree on what a leave plan should look like. Now some Republicans have a new idea: Let people collect Social Security benefits early to pay for time off after they have a baby.

Unlike some other proposals, this would require no new taxes. There’s a catch, though: Parents would have their Social Security benefits delayed when they retire to offset the costs.

Social Security has long been viewed as an untouchable part of the social safety net. By letting people tap it for parental leave, it would begin to feel more like an individual account — an idea conservatives have been trying to advance for decades.

Later in the article, this quote (from Carrie Lukas, who heads up a right-wing think tank that supports the plan) illustrates just how out-of-touch this idea really is: “Sixty-seven is really late middle age, and many people are really happy to continue working.”

Really? Happy to continue working? Or have no choice but to continue working?:

A 2016 study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that one-quarter of workers 50 and older say they won’t retire. Among low wage workers, earning less than $50,000 a year, it was 33 percent.

Another 2016 report, by the nonpartisan research nonprofit National Institute on Retirement Security, shows that many black, Latina and Asian women have to work past retirement age to be able to afford basic expenses. Women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished. For men between 70 and 74, about 19 percent of their income comes from wages. For women, it’s about 15 percent.

Aside from tone-deafness and utter lack of connection to the daily lives of working people, Republicans actually do have one part of this right: the Social Security Administration is a great place to set up a national paid family leave program — overhead is very low, staff and infrastructure are already in place, etc. But the way to pay for it is…wait for it…to actually pay for it instead of making workers borrow from their future benefits — like this:

The Family Act, a bill sponsored in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, would create a new fund within the Social Security Administration. Employers and employees would each contribute 0.2 percent of their wages for 12 weeks of paid parental, family or medical leave.

Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal builds on Social Security’s proven history, and is a lot like Washington state’s own recently-passed Family and Medical Leave Insurance: workers and employers both contribute to a shared insurance fund that’s available when needed, without a penalty later on in life.

In other words, it’s a model for building on (and upholding) a real social contract, instead of shredding it.