Town Hall Meetings Say No to Cutting Social Security

I can’t help but think that the folks behind the “America Speaks” town hall meetings, held June 26 in 19 cities across the country, were shell-shocked by the results. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and, principally, the foundation of Wall Street financier Peter Peterson had spent big bucks designing a program that would make participants see the need to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in order to reduce the federal deficit. They wanted people to make “tough choices” for the sake of the next generation. What they got was some tough responses.

The town hall meetings were ostensibly held to give “Americans a greater voice in the important decisions that affect their lives.” It’s my guess that Peterson had visions of tea-baggers populating the meetings, calling for an end to “entitlements” and bad-mouthing taxes. If so, he was in for a rude awakening.

Ninety-four percent of participants voted to raise taxes, and of that group 66 percent wanted to raise taxes on the top two brackets (sorry, Peterson).

Detroit was one of the 19 cities hosting the event. Two friends alerted me, fearful that the deficit hawks would hijack the meetings and push a slash-and-burn agenda. Groups such as Move On, Health Care Now, and Social Security Works mobilized their supporters to attend. So I went online the night before and signed up. I showed up the next morning ready to fight (and upset because I was missing the last day of the US Social Forum).

We were outfitted with keypads and the 19 cities were linked by video. Right from the start I found myself doubting the process, and it only got worse as we went along.

Knowing how I had signed up, I was surprised when I heard the folks at “America Speaks” claim that participants had been scientifically selected to reflect a diverse cross-section of the American public. According to the data gained from the keypads, the 3,900 participants across the country were much older and slightly wealthier than average. Latinos were underrepresented.

It soon became obvious that progressive groups had done a good job mobilizing. According to the polls taken on the keypads, participants wanted a balance between taking care of current and future generations, overwhelmingly felt that a greater burden for reducing the deficit should be placed on those that have more ability or capacity, and, while there was a balance between individual and government responsibility, tended more towards government responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT IS TO…

But the process was focused on one task: to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion by 2025. We were given a 20-page primer titled “Federal Budget 101,” given an hour to look at it, and then told to get cutting. The Options Workbook listed the advantages and disadvantages of the options for cutting the deficit, but it was the selection of categories and the use of a very limited set of pre-selected options, with no way to include your own ideas, that told us the process was designed to skew the results toward a predestined conclusion.

For example, the first two categories were Healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid) and Social Security. The materials didn’t mention that neither of these programs adds to the deficit because they are self-funded through specific payroll taxes. Most participants knew this, however, and were very vocal about it (we were, after all, an older group).

What the workbook did say was that because of an aging population and rapidly increasing health care costs, the two programs will become even more expensive. But the only four choices we were allowed to vote on were reducing Medicare and Medicaid spending by 5 percent, 10 percent, or 15 percent or making no changes.

It was clear to me that not only in Detroit but also in the other 18 cities, most people thought a single-payer system would be best for reducing costs. But since we were unable to vote for single payer, 38 percent voted no change.

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For Social Security, the option that most people (85 percent) agreed on was to increase the limit on taxable earnings. Right now people pay Social Security taxes only on incomes up to $106,800—and that means only 80 percent of total earnings, nationwide, are taxed for Social Security.

Still, driven by the push to make “tough choices” to reduce the deficit, 52 percent went along with raising the age for full benefits to 69. Participants were also willing to raise their payroll taxes to keep Social Security solvent—42 percent were willing to raise the tax by 2 percent.

In regards to all other non-military spending, the majority—58 percent—either wanted no change or minimal change.

When it came to military spending, the majority (51 percent) wanted to cut it by 15 percent (the maximum allowed). Only 15 percent wanted to make no change. A number of us talked about a 20 percent reduction and ending the current wars, but, again, weren’t allowed to vote on any other options.

HOW TO RAISE REVENUE

On the revenue side, you had a choice of raising existing taxes and reducing deductions or entirely reforming the tax code. Sixty-eight percent favored an additional 5 percent tax on those making more than $1 million a year, 64 percent favored creating a new carbon tax, and 61 percent wanted a new tax on securities transactions. (Read my lips: new taxes on the right people are OK.)

A big reason for the town halls was so America Speaks could report its findings to President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which was set up to pave the way for cutting Social Security. In its report, America Speaks did acknowledge that participants had indicated support for single-payer health care, cutting military spending, and eliminating the cap on Social Security—but no figures were given, because its system wasn’t set up that way. Instead, it focused on the numbers who chose its own options.

There’s a real lesson from these town hall meetings for our unions.

Unions were largely absent from this entire process. It was the mobilization efforts of progressive groups that stopped the right wing from hijacking the town halls. Our unions need to relearn how to mobilize our members, not just for picket lines and rallies but for efforts like these that educate members and give them a voice.

We could start with our own union town hall meetings that invite members to sit down and discuss issues and solutions, ones that they come up with and haven’t been handed down from the top. Wouldn’t that make members feel they are part of a democratic union and encourage them to get involved?


Al Benchich retired as president of United Auto Workers Local 909 in Warren, Michigan.