While Republicans and Democrats spar over extending Bush-era tax breaks for the super-wealthy, another argument is under way in Washington — and this one has the power to devastate middle-income Americans, particularly those in states such as Missouri.
Using the national deficit to justify their position, conservative lawmakers now claim we need to roll back Social Security benefits and up the retirement age to bring federal spending under control. They argue the system is nearly broke and requires massive infusions of cash to remain solvent. Some are even back to promoting privatization, despite the collapse of Wall Street that wiped out $14 trillion in U.S. household savings.
It's apparently irrelevant that their argument overlooks basic fact. But it does shed light on what's at stake in November's elections.
According to the Social Security Trustees Report, a document presented every year since 1941, issued Aug. 5, the system's future isn't nearly so dire as critics would have us think. Social Security is operating with a surplus, which will continue to grow until 2023 when it will reach $4.5 trillion. With no change whatsoever in benefit rate or retirement age, Social Security is secure through 2037.
And its impact is acute in states like Missouri.
The nonprofit nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculated in 2005 that 45 of every 100 seniors in the state would fall below the poverty line if not for monthly Social Security payments. With retirement benefits, provided at the current rate, the number of destitute age 65 and over plummets to less than 6 percent.
Little known, also, is the impact Social Security has on children. Twelve percent of Missouri kids under 18 would fall into poverty were it not for such things as survivors benefits following the death of a parent. As the Center's report states, "when both the breadth and severity of children's poverty are considered, Social Security does more to reduce child poverty than any other program."
An updated report by the Center is due out later this month, and it's expected to show no significant drop in the number of Missouri residents who rely on Social Security just to meet basic need — and that means more than 1 million in a state of less than 6 million.
But it's a fair bet to assume even that won't change the minds of lawmakers intent on dismantling the nation's longest-running and most successful anti-poverty program, even though it's supported by workers' wages and law prohibits it ever from contributing to our nation's debt.
The tax cuts at issue provide $700 billion in unpaid revenue to the top 2 percent wealthiest Americans, and they don't come without a price to the rest of us.
The upcoming elections ultimately will settle the debate and determine who wins: The well-heeled financial wizards who brought our nation to economic ruin, or retirees and children of deceased or disabled workers who banked on fairness when it came to how tax dollars would be spent.
Niel Ritchie is executive director of the League of Rural Voters, a Minnesota-based nonprofit working to strengthen rural communities nationwide.