Who Pays to Save Social Security? Us or Them?
Social Security is quite healthy now—but it will need more cash eventually. Who should pony up? The vast majority of working Americans, suddenly forced to work through what they’d been promised would be their golden years? Or the biggest earners, the top 6 percent?
That’s the choice at the heart of the current debate.
If we let Congress choose to gouge workers, we can be sure that everything else will be up for grabs as well. Social Security until very recently was called the “third rail” of U.S. politics—no politician dared touch it. If they find out they can take away grandma and grandpa’s hard-earned nest egg, both politicians and employers will be emboldened to test what else they can steal.
The fervor to cut is “not a partisan issue,” says Laura Markhardt of the Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), an AFL-CIO affiliate. “Many, many Democrats are saying, this is one of our options.”
Why cut now, if Social Security will be fine for decades?
“They say, if you wait longer, the problem becomes harder to solve,” explains Maya Rockeymoore of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “They say it’s best to do it when you have friends in the White House and in Congress.”
Clearly, those who want a secure retirement can’t count on these friends (who don’t seem to read the polls showing their constituents don’t want cuts) this time around. The question is how hard the groups—including unions—who toiled for the Democrats in 2008 will fight the commission’s proposals.
The AFL-CIO has said the right things but appears more focused on its jobs proposals than on Social Security. (Getting people back to work would indeed pump more money into the program.) Rich Trumka is surely under pressure from the White House to be a team player.
Asked whether union leaders were more hesitant to criticize a Democratic president and Congress than they were in 2005 when George Bush was the bad guy, Markhardt said, “It definitely is a different sort of vibe this time around. At first there was some caution and waiting to see what would happen. But after some of the preliminary discussions of the Deficit Commission, people said it was time to rally the troops.”
SHINE A LIGHT
Mark Dudzic of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer believes “if we can make this an issue in the election campaign between now and November we can defeat a giveback. All these forces are conspiring to make this an inside deal that happens after the election. We can shine the sun on it.”
There’s plenty of thievery to bring into the light. Just look at the Deficit Commission’s favorite proposal right now: raising the retirement age.
Rockeymoore points out that this would take away proportionately more benefits from people with shorter life expectancies. Those who die younger “tend to be lower income, less educated, and racial and ethnic minorities,” Rockeymoore said. “With a higher retirement age, a transfer of wealth takes place, from those groups to those who are higher income, more educated, and not racial or ethnic minorities.”
It would also be “operating in a fantasy land,” Rockeymoore said, to think that older Americans who lose their jobs, now forced to work till 68 or 70, could find new ones.
Dudzic points out that cuts to Social Security also “open the door to privatization,” putting workers’ accounts in the hands of Wall Street, because cuts would weaken popular confidence that the program will be there for retirees.
“It plants the idea that Social Security can’t guarantee you can retire—you need to take care of yourself,” he said.
Privatization was, of course, George W. Bush’s big goal.