A Gathering Movement Tries to Expand Social Security Instead of Cutting It

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In our nation’s capitol, calls for cutting Social Security benefits and shifting the ever-rising costs of health care from Medicare onto the backs of American seniors are ubiquitous. But context matters, and these ideas are nothing short of perverse given the depths of the massively painful retirement crisis that working America faces today.

Social Security was never designed to provide real retirement security. It was conceived as one leg of a three-legged stool, supplementing pensions and personal savings. But traditional pensions are becoming a thing of the past, replaced by 401(K) plans — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of private sector workers responsible for their own retirement savings increased nearly four-fold between 1980 and 2008. And while Americans socked away almost ten percent of their incomes back in 1970, decades of stagnant middle-class wages has made saving up for retirement much harder – by 2010, we were only saving around four percent of what we made.

Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, says that, as a result of these trends, “75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.” Two-thirds of Americans over age 65 rely on Social Security for over half their income, and for over a third of all seniors, those checks make up more than 90 percent of their income. “The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers,” says Ghilarducci, and “almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.”

This sorry state of affairs isn’t only hurting America’s seniors. It’s forcing many of them to remain in the workforce longer than they would otherwise, which is, in turn, hurting the job prospects of younger workers, who face a sky-high unemployment rate.

This is the backdrop for calls to cut benefits, which averaged just $14,760 last year. But a coalition of progressive groups are now coalescing around a proposal by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to increase Social Security payments by an average of $70 per month.

And while the Obama administration has floated the idea of adopting a new way of calculating cost-of-living increases that would gradually decrease benefits over time, Harkin’s plan would create a new formula which would capture increases in the real-world costs that seniors pay, including higher health care costs.

Finally, Harkin’s plan would make an already solvent program more so, by scrapping the cap on earnings subject to payroll taxes. A study conducted in January by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that this was the most popular of 12 options for shoring up America’s last remaining defined-benefit pension system.

A growing coalition of progressive groups and seniors’ organizations are gathering behind Harkin’s bill. On a conference call announcing his co-sponsorship of the bill, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was asked by a supporter whether such a measure would stand a chance in a Congress that can’t seem to come together to pass any constructive legislation. “It depends on the pressure that you all put on them,” he said. GOP lawmakers, he added, are “always concerned about a right-wing tea party challenge, but the public is clearly with us on this, and I think the more they hear about this the better our chances of winning some of our Republican colleagues over.”

You can lend your support to the effort by contacting your representative and senators, or signing petitions offered by Moveon.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.

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