Social Security isn’t going bankrupt. Even after 2034 (when the Trust Fund is projected to be fully depleted) benefits will still be paid — but it may not be able to pay all of what retirees put in and were promised. And that, according to many polls, is very important to many Americans both young and elderly.
What to do? In short, there are two options: 1) increase revenues or 2) cut benefits. But figuring out which is fairer — and most likely to make it through Congress — is something economists, politicians, and policy makers have all disagreed on.
The Atlantic’s Bouree Lam explores some of the most frequently posed policy solutions for Social Security in this handy explainer. Keep it nearby for the upcoming Democratic Primary Debate!
Before you answer that question, consider what Mark Hulbert, columnist for MarketWatch, has to say:
The future is unknowable, and uncertainty can certainly be scary. But in a ranking of things to worry about, I would place a number of other uncertainties far higher than whether Social Security “will be there for me.” How will the stock market perform over the next few decades, for example? Is much higher inflation about to rear its ugly head? Where are interest rates headed?
The impact of a wrong answer on any of those questions is definitely something worth worrying about.
In the meantime, it’s simply not accurate to say there is a Social Security crisis, in the sense of “a sudden change” or a “turning point,” to quote the standard dictionary definitions of crisis. There is nothing about Social Security’s finances today that hasn’t been known for decades.
In fact, Andy Landis, author of “Social Security: The Inside Story” and a former Social Security Administration representative, tells me that in 1983, after the last time Congress made changes to Social Security’s funding mechanisms, its actuaries projected that the system would be able to meet all obligations until the mid-2030s. So it’s hardly a surprise to “discover” today what has been known for four decades. There’s no more of a Social Security funding “crisis” now than at any point since the mid-1980s.
It is true that, unless further funding changes are instituted, the Social Security trust fund will need additional funding in 2034. Note, however, that this prospect is analogous to the situation that faced Social Security in the early 1980s; like now, for many years before then, projections had shown that the system would eventually run out of money. The 1983 amendments to Social Security, which resolved the funding shortfall, weren’t finally approved until just four months before when the system would otherwise have run out of money.
Featured Speakers: Representative Pramila Jayapal, United States Congress (WA-7) Larry Brown, President, Washington State Labor Council Teresa Mosqueda, Seattle City Council Member, Position 8 Alex Lawson, Executive Director, Social Security Works Xochitl Maykovich, Organizing Director, Washington CAN!
Special Guest: Jon “Bowzer” Bauman (formerly of Sha-Na-Na)
Musical Performance: Seattle Labor Chorus
Emcees: April Sims, Secretary-Treasurer, Washington State Labor Council Senator Joe Nguyen, Washington State Legislature, 34th District
Sponsored By: Abracadabra Printing American Federation of Government Employees Local 3937 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 2 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 28 American Federation of Teachers – Washington Bremerton Metal Trades Council Economic Opportunity Institute International Association of Machinists District Lodge 751 and 134 in Gladstone Oregon and Local 2202 ILWU Pensioners Kitsap Central Labor Council National Organization for Women, Seattle Chapter Pierce Central Labor Council Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action Education Fund Physicians for a National Health Program Western Washington Retired Public Employees Council 10 and Subchapter 3 and 12 Service Employees International Union 775 and SEIU WA State Council Teamsters Joint Council and Teamsters Local 117 United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 Washington Community Action Network Washington State Assoc. Of Electrical Workers and IBEW 77 Washington State Labor Council Thalia Syracopoulos
If you’re a millennial, you may have been led to believe that you have a better chance of seeing a UFO or Bigfoot than receiving a Social Security check. In a recent survey, some 80 percent of millennials are concerned that they won’t be able to receive any Social Security benefits upon retirement.
With the steady drumbeat of dystopian disinformation flowing from Social Security’s opponents and many in the media, who could blame them? No wonder the young adults I talk to at town hall meetings across the country tell me the same thing: “Social Security will not be there for me when I need it.” Let me assure the U.S.’s young people that Social Security will be there for you in the future, if you fight for it now.
Don’t listen to so-called “entitlement reformers” who try to divide the generations by telling you it’s unfair that millennials “support” today’s retirees through Social Security payroll contributions. This ignores the fact that the program has always been a compact between the generations — and has provided Americans with basic income in retirement for more than 80 years. Social Security is the bedrock of the U.S.’s working and middle classes. We can’t allow conservative ideologues to erode it.
In fact, there is another path forward, championed by Rep. John Larson (D-Connecticut) and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), among others in Congress. Both have introduced legislation that would put Social Security on a solid financial footing for the future while providing a modest but much-needed boost in benefits. Each bill would adjust the Social Security payroll wage cap (currently set at $132,900) so that the wealthy would begin paying their fair share into the program.
President Franklin Roosevelt famously
remarked about attacks on Social Security, “It is an old strategy of
tyrants to delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.” We can
see that strategy at work today.
The “tyrants” are the billionaire class, ideologically opposed to
contributing their fair share to the common good, and the politicians they
finance. Those powerful forces are working surreptitiously to frame a narrative
that so-called greedy geezers are to blame, selfishly taking for themselves at
the expense of their grandchildren. Former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), who has
used the term “greedy geezer” so often that many think he coined the term, said
about seniors fighting cuts to Social Security, “[W]ho are the people howling
and bitching the most? The people over 60… Those people… don’t care a whit
about their grandchildren… not a whit.”
The goal of Simpson and his billionaire cronies is to convince younger
generations to fight older generations over scraps, rather than joining
together to demand more. A recent Twitter kerfuffle exemplifies the strategy to
“delude their victims into fighting their battles for them.” Earlier this
month, a story aired
on NBC Nightly News about the Senior Citizen Education Program at the
University of Minnesota. This program allows senior citizens to take college
courses for only $10 a credit. Many people, particularly on Twitter, were
outraged at the story. Why, they asked, are seniors taking classes for a
nominal fee while young people are buried under a mountain of student debt?
That’s the wrong question. The right question is, how can Americans of all
generations come together to fight for greater economic security for all of us?
That includes expanded Social Security; tuition-free college and cancellation
of student debt. The truth is that younger workers are going to rely on Social
Security even more than today’s retirees. The truth is that seniors are better
off if their grandchildren can start their adult lives debt-free.
The truth is also that, the University of Minnesota’s program aside, seniors
across the country are in fact trapped by student debt along with their younger
counterparts—and are even having their hard-earned Social Security benefits
garnished to pay off those debts. According to the Consumer Financial
Protection Bureau, student debt is an increasingly
heavy burden on seniors. In 2005, 700,000 Americans aged 60 and older had
student debt. By 2015, that number quadrupled to 2.8 million—and it’s no doubt
considerably higher today. Seniors owe
over $86 billion in student debt.
In many cases, this debt comes from helping their children (or
grandchildren) attend college. Our broken system forced these seniors to choose
between their own retirement and their children’s futures, and they picked
their children. For the crime of wanting their family to live out the American
Dream, they are condemned to decades of poverty.
In other cases, this debt comes from going back to school themselves,
relatively late in life. Many people, particularly women, face ageism
in the workplace as early as their 40s. Employers don’t want to pay the higher
salaries that more experienced workers command, and they especially don’t want
to pay higher health care costs (one of many reasons we need to enact Medicare
Those laid off in midlife often chose to go back to school to gain new
skills. In the process, they incur student debt that will follow them for the
rest of their lives. Instead of a source of outrage, the University of
Minnesota program should be a source of inspiration. It should be a model for
what we need to offer everyone, of all ages.
Thomas Paine, a founding father of our nation, proposed
that all young people be given a lump sum payment at the age of 21. Paine
rightly saw that not only should people start adulthood free of debt, but they
should also start with some property.
Tuition-free public college does not go as far as Paine’s vision, but it is
an important start. People should be starting their adulthood with assets, not
burdens. In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, everyone who
wants an education should be able to get it without being shackled to debt for
Furthermore, we must act aggressively to protect those who are already
caught in the student debt trap. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sherrod Brown
(D-OH) have introduced the Protection
of Social Security Benefits Restoration Act, which would stop the federal
government from garnishing the Social Security checks of people with student
debt. Passage of this bill would be an important first step. But we must go
This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal
(D-WA), and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced a college
affordability package. The package makes public colleges and universities
tuition-free for all who attend and cancels all student debt.
In the fight to pass these wise proposals into law, we must be ready for
Roosevelt’s “tyrants,” who will seek to use their money and influence to thwart
the common good. They have always been with us and probably always will.
In the 19th century, the nation recognized the importance of public
education. In response to the idea, John Randolph, a Virginia politician and
wealthy landowner, argued against universal public schools, claiming it would
perniciously “ease individuals of their natural and moral obligations” to take
responsibility for the education of their own children.
Today, you hear similar arguments about the moral obligation of paying off
the outrageous debts incurred for the “crime” of higher education. Just as our
forebearers made public K-12 education a right, we must make public college a
right despite the objections of modern-day John Randolphs. We must cancel the
debt of those of all ages who find themselves caught in the student debt
crisis. And we must be on guard against those who seek to divide and conquer
The reality is that, in the 21st century with its technological advances,
today’s work often requires more than a high school diploma. Like free high
school, there should be free college as well. It only makes sense that those
who have been caught in the web of unaffordable college now have those debts
Expanding Social Security, tuition-free public college and the cancellation
of student debt should not pit one generation against another. All of us are
better off if grandparents have dignified and secure retirements, and
grandchildren are well-educated, starting adulthood debt free. If we can join
together to ensure that the wealthiest among us pay their fair share, all of
that is within reach.
This article was written by Nancy Altman and produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Paul Krugman’s latest column is a must-read if you want to understand why policymakers don’t seem to be moving on the issues that matter to most voters. Here’s a highlight:
…[V]oters tend to place a relatively low priority on deficits as compared with jobs and the economy. And they overwhelmingly favor spending more on health care and Social Security.
The rich, however, are different from you and me. In 2011 the political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright managed to survey a group of wealthy individuals in the Chicago area. They found striking differences between this group’s policy priorities and those of the public at large. Budget deficits topped the list of problems they considered “very important,” with a third considering them the “most important” problem. While the respondents also expressed concern about unemployment and education, “they ranked a distant second and third among the concerns of wealthy Americans.”
And when it came to entitlements, the policy preferences of the wealthy were clearly at odds with those of the general public. By large margins, voters at large wanted to expand spending on health care and Social Security. By almost equally large margins, the wealthy wanted to reduce spending on those same programs.
[Via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] The Trump Administration is considering whether to use a lower inflation measure to calculate annual adjustments to the federal poverty line. This approach would ultimately hurt millions of seniors and people with disabilities who would lose their eligibility for, or receive less help from, programs to help them make ends meet. Many programs use the poverty line to determine eligibility and benefits and, if this proposal took effect, the cuts to these programs — and the numbers of people losing assistance or receiving less of it — would increase with each passing year.
Rather than continue to use the
traditional consumer price index to calculate annual adjustments to the federal
poverty line, the Administration is proposing to use a lower measure of
inflation such as the “chained CPI.” That would lower the income thresholds to
determine whether someone is eligible for a wide variety of federal programs,
which in turn would cut or eliminate assistance to many individuals and
Take Medicare, which is critically
important for seniors and people with disabilities. While Medicare eligibility
itself doesn’t depend on income, lower-income Medicare enrollees qualify for
federal help to pay their premiums, deductibles, and other cost sharing
obligations through Medicaid or the Medicare Low-Income Subsidy (LIS) program.
In many cases, eligibility for that assistance is based on the federal poverty
After ten years of updating the
poverty line using the chained CPI, we estimate that:
More than 250,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities would lose eligibility for, or get less help from, the LIS Program, substantially increasing their prescription drug costs. Most of them would no longer be eligible for the full LIS benefit. Others would lose eligibility for the partial LIS benefit.
More than 150,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities would lose eligibility for a Medicaid program that covers their Medicare Part B premium. That means they’d have to pay premiums out of pocket to maintain Medicare coverage for physician and other outpatient care. The 2019 Part B premium is $1,626 per year ($135.50 per month).
Many other low-income seniors and people with disabilities would lose eligibility for a Medicaid program that helps them afford their Medicare deductibles and other cost sharing. Since Medicaid would no longer cover their Medicare hospital or physician cost sharing, they could face a hospital deductible of $1,364, a physician services deductible of $185, and additional co-insurance and copays (based on 2019 program parameters), compared to generally no cost sharing today.
While making it harder for seniors
and disabilities to afford health care through Medicare, the proposal would
also affect Medicaid eligibility in states that expanded the
program under the Affordable Care Act.
Some seniors and people with
disabilities would also lose eligibility for SNAP(food stamps), which
provides important nutritional support for low-income seniors and people with
disabilities living on fixed incomes. For seniors, SNAP participation is linked with
reduced nursing home admissions and hospitalization and less frequent skipping
of needed medicines. More than one-fourth of SNAP participants have an
impairment or disability, so SNAP cuts would inevitably mean
more hunger and hardship for people with disabilities.
A number of other programs that assist seniors and people
with disabilities also have eligibility limits linked to the poverty level,
meaning that some people would no longer be eligible for them (although these
programs generally don’t serve all eligible people). These include, for
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps low-income people pay their heating and cooling bills. Some 40 percent of LIHEP-eligible households include at least one person aged 60 or older. LIHEAP benefits can help aging seniors and people with disabilities stay in their homes.
Weatherization Assistance for Low-Income Persons, which helps low-income households by providing insulation, replacing broken windows, and fixing or replacing heaters and furnaces to make homes more energy efficient.
Community health centers, which provide low-cost health care for people who don’t qualify for Medicaid, including seniors and people with disabilities.
TheChild and Adult Care Food Program, which helps pay for nutritious meals and snacks for seniors and people with disabilities served by adult day care centers.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), the nation’s oldest program to help low-income, unemployed individuals aged 55 and over find work. SCSEP matches eligible older adults with part-time jobs for community service organizations, serving nearly every county in the nation.
The Foster Grandparent Program, which engages low-income seniors aged 60 and over in volunteer service to provide supportive, person-to-person service to children with exceptional or special needs.
The Senior Companion Program, which engages low-income seniors aged 60 and over in volunteer service to provide supportive, individualized services to help adults with special needs to maintain their independence.
Legal Services for the Poor, which provides legal aid to low-income Americans, including seniors and disabilities. For example, the program protects the elderly from being victimized by unscrupulous lenders, and it helps people get and retain disability benefits and Americans with Disability Act protections.