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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Social Security continues as fight between Main Street, elite

June 7, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Once again, the annual Social Security Trustees Report, released May 31, is being misinterpreted by Wall Street bankers and their allies, including some elected officials, to spread baseless fears about our retirement, survivor and disability benefits.

They hide behind the unfamiliar word “austerity,” which really means they want to cut our programs and move our money into other places like the stock market or get more tax cuts for the wealthy.

There are also questionable concerns from those who never supported Social Security or feel they would be financially secure without it. So, this isn’t a left vs. right argument. It’s a fight between Main Street and the elite.

Vigilant oversight

Those of us who recognize the importance of Social Security must vigilantly and actively guard against attacks from those who distort the facts and call for cuts aimed at dismantling Social Security brick-by-brick.

GRO-Grass Roots Organizing is working with many other groups in the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, not just defending what we have, but actively working to improve it.

The key take-away from the 2013 Trustees Report is that our Social Security system works well for the American people.

Unlike big banks, which nearly brought the economy to ruin, or unlike traditional pension plans and 401(k)s that are unreliable, Social Security didn’t and doesn’t need a bailout.

Private retirement crisis

The real crisis isn’t in the Social Security system, but in the unpredictable and diminishing private retirement system. In fact, Social Security has a large and growing surplus and, again in 2013, will take in billions more dollars than it pays out.

By law, Social Security cannot borrow money. It doesn’t contribute one cent to the federal deficit and is too important to be involved in that debate.

It is self-financed by three sources of revenue – payroll contributions, interest payments from money borrowed by the U.S. Treasury and taxation of benefits.

We oppose federal policymakers cutting our benefits by a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) formula like the proposed Chained Consumer Price Index (Chained CPI) calculation, or raising the eligibility age, or lessening the amount of recipient’s checks, or turning Social Security into a means-tested “poverty program.” 

Any cuts like these are unnecessary and unacceptable.

Depending on Social Security

Social Security checks are modest, averaging just $15,200 per year. However, they are critical to the two-thirds of senior households relying on it for a majority of their income and to the more than one-third relying on it for 90 percent of their income.

These statistics made me realize that I am in this group of Americans who worked hard their whole life, but will depend on Social Security for 90 percent of my income.

Fortunately, the 2013 report shows that 100 percent of benefits can be paid out for decades. There is no reason to panic.

But, just like our highway system, where new roads must be built and potholes fixed, we should calmly and deliberately address the long-term financial needs of Social Security and make adjustments and repairs. We should not cut back.

Looking for action

What actions should our government take to secure funding for the long-haul?

Higher employment levels would bring in more money to Social Security.

Economist Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, says, “It’s time to stop obsessing about how we’ll pay benefits to retirees in 2035 and focus instead on how we’re going to provide jobs to unemployed Americans in the here and now.”

The wealthier and millionaire and billionaire families contribute to Social Security only on wages up to $113,700. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,  explained, “Today, someone making $10 million a year contributes the same amount of money as someone making $113,700. That is absurd."

Dump payroll tax cap

To do this, Congress and the president should simply eliminate the payroll tax cap.

Then the richer 6 percent of workers would contribute on all their wages just like everyone else below the income cap does. If we “Scrap the Cap,” we would be able to boost benefits to reflect the real cost of living and maintain the system forever.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recently introduced the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013 (S567). This bill would reform the benefit formula so that all Social Security beneficiaries would get approximately $70 more each month. Importantly, the bill also changes the COLA so benefits would better keep up with rising costs.

All of these reassuring facts should encourage us to take heart and speak out to defend against cutting any of our earned benefits. Let’s be adamant about not losing our Social Security, or our children’s, or our grandchildren’s, ad infinitum, to all future generations.

Ask Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill to stop all cuts to Socials Security, “Scrap the Cap” and co-sponsor S567.

Mary Hussmann is an organizer with GRO-Grass Roots Organizing in Columbia.