From the category archives: Max Richtman
Let’s take quick stock of what this lame duck Congressional session has meant for middle-class Americans, especially seniors and their families:
- Legislation that reversed 40 years of federal law protecting retirees’ pensions was tucked quietly into the massive spending bill. The change will allow benefit cuts for more than 1.5 million workers; many of them part of a shrinking middle-class workforce in businesses such as construction and trucking.
2. $42 billion in largely corporate tax breaks was passed without the “pay-fors” demanded by Congress for virtually every other spending provision. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Congress keeps passing short-terms extensions every year or two, the tax breaks will cost $700 billion over the coming decade. As Citizens for Tax Justice so aptly put it: “If our government has $700 billion to spare, it should be devoted to paying for things we really need, not wasted on corporate tax giveaways.”
3. Congress has headed home for the holidays without confirming a Director of the Social Security Administration. This is after nearly 18 months without a permanent agency head at a time when the agency faces the largest workload increase and budgets cuts it’s faced in its history.
Since we’ve already written about the first two items, we’re going to fill in the details on the third, including why it matters so much to Social Security beneficiaries. Social Security expert, Eric Laursen provides this recap:
“Republican senators are upset about delays and cost overruns on a new computer system at the Social Security Administration—so upset, they have blocked President Obama’s nominee for commissioner. The only the trouble is, the new computer system was planned and ordered up by the prior commissioner—a George W. Bush appointee.”
“A lot of this is simply hyperventilating. It’s not clear that the GOP senators “received information from whistleblowers,” as they claim. What happened for sure was that an interim report from the Social Security Administration’s inspector general said that officials at the SSA may have misled Congress about aspects of the $300 million computer system. The report stems from an investigation that Colvin herself ordered after she took over from Astrue early last year. And when the senators point their fingers at “the activities of certain members of your immediate office” in their letter, they would be referring to officials who were in place under Astrue as well. Yet the tone of their letter suggests, misleadingly, that Colvin herself may be under suspicion.”
“It’s been an article of faith for Republicans from the early days of the Reagan administration that the heads of agencies like the SSA must not come from within the agency itself. If at all possible, they must be strongly conservative critics who are committed to “reforming” it by shrinking it and pushing back against its unionized workforce. The less experience they have with the day-to-day running of a big, complex agency like the SSA, the better. Astrue fit that bill. Colvin, by contrast, represents the so-called “permanent government” Republicans are determined to break. That they were ready to exploit any chink in her armor, however unfair, should have been foreseeable.”
Colvin’s qualifications to be SSA’s Director are undeniable, as NCPSSM’s President/CEO, Max Richtman, told the Senate in a letter last week:
“Ms. Colvin has extensive experience with the Social Security Administration (SSA) that makes her uniquely qualified to provide leadership to this vitally important agency. She has been Acting Commissioner of SSA for more than a year and, before that, had served since 2010 as the agency’s Deputy Commissioner. In addition, she has in the past held a number of other key executive positions at Social Security headquarters, including Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Policy and Deputy Commissioner for Operations.
The broad-ranging nature of Ms. Colvin’s experience has provided her with the knowledge and the temperament to lead SSA through the years that lie ahead. We personally know her to be a woman of great integrity and respect the compassionate leadership she has displayed throughout a long and distinguished career.”
Why does this matter to beneficiaries? Because the Social Security Administration needs a leader in place to tackle the challenges ahead. Leaving the agency in limbo leaves it vulnerable to even further attacks virtually guaranteed with the new Congress:
... as Social Security faces the sharpest increase in its workload and its most bitter political challenges since its creation in 1935, it will continue to chug along without an official commissioner. Colvin, 72, will stay on as acting commissioner, a post she has held since February 2013.”
“...there's no reason to doubt Colvin's commitment to Social Security, which she served as a high-level executive from 1994 to 2001, returning in 2010 as deputy commissioner. As Paul Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observes, Colvin has to work with the budget cards she's dealt: "She been doing a good job under very difficult circumstances, with a continually shrinking real budget," he said.
Indeed, the problem is Social Security's budget -- and the Democrats' failure to safeguard it. The crisis emerged in 2011, when Congress started to pare the president's budget requests for the Social Security Administration. From then through fiscal 2013, Social Security got $2.7 billion less than the president sought. Some of the shortfall was restored this year, but most of the increase was designated for anti-fraud programs, not pure administration.”
Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times asks, “Are the Democrats allowing Social Security to Twist in the Wind?” We think that’s a very good question.
Tucked into the massive spending bill Congress passed this weekend was legislation that reversed 40 years of federal law protecting retirees’ pensions. The change will allow benefit cuts for more than 1.5 million workers, many of them part of a shrinking middle-class workforce in businesses such as construction and trucking. There wasn’t a single Congressional hearing on the plan before it was slipped into the spending bill, outraging senior’s advocates...including NCPSSM.
“Allowing plans to break the fundamental ERISA promise - that pensions paid to retirees and their surviving spouses will not be reduced - represents an extreme response to a problem that can be addressed through other means by strengthening the funding of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
Additionally, the National Committee is deeply concerned that this provision could set a dangerous precedent for other defined benefit programs, such as single employer plans, public sector plans and Social Security. We believe a change this fundamental to the retirement security of Americans should be subject to a Congressional hearing and should be considered by the appropriate committees, with legislative language reviewed by Congress and the public, particularly those who will be affected by these reductions.” Letter to Congress - Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO
Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), shares our concerns as he described to the Wall Street Journal:
“Some Democrats in particular were uneasy with the solution, saying it is being rushed through Congress and could create a dangerous precedent encouraging other retiree benefit cuts.
‘This is unprecedented and I worry about the impact on retirees and the slippery slope we’re about to head down,’ said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), the Finance Committee chairman, in a statement. ‘I am working hard to protect retirees’ pensions, and jamming this bill through Congress virtually sight unseen is no way to solve this issue.’ “
In fact, some House Republicans see this pension cut strategy as an example of how Congress should handle Social Security in the new GOP controlled Congress. Make no mistake about it, Congress needed to come up with a long-term solution to the multi-employer pension shortfall; however, there was no urgency plus there were other options beyond a cuts-only solution hitting current retirees with no way to prepare for a cut in their income.
“Wall Street banks, automakers and insurance giants got bailouts during the economic meltdown that started in 2008. But when it comes to the pensions of retired truck drivers, construction workers and mine workers, it seems that enough is enough.” Time.com
‘It bothers me no end that we have Congress and legislators that think that the proper way to correct problems that banks and corporations made is to take it out on the workers,’ said Dave Cook, president of Local 655 of the United Food and Commercial Workers.” St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Pension Rights Center has a calculator
on its website that lets retirees under age 75 see how much their pensions might be reduced under the bill.
This article was originally posted on Huffington Post
Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
The 114th Congress will see many new faces after the 2014 midterms; however, the face of our nation's middle class remains largely unchanged - they're poorer, more diverse, getting older and facing a retirement crisis which threatens millions. How will this new Congress address this old reality? Not one of the newly-elected Members of Congress campaigned on promises to cut benefits to Social Security and Medicare, yet it's already clear the new GOP majority considers lowering corporate tax rates and cutting benefits to middle-class seniors a priority. Same as it ever was.
The disconnect between many in Congress and average Americans on Social Security and Medicare is certainly nothing new. In poll after poll, the American people clearly do not support cutting middle-class benefits in these programs to balance the budget or bankroll tax cuts for the wealthy or large corporations already dodging billions in taxes each year. Contrary to the current political mythology that the American people aren't willing to be "grownups" and make the "tough choices" for our nation, the fact is, they simply don't support the benefit-cutting strategy preferred by many Washington politicians. Not only do they oppose cutting benefits, most Americans support boosting benefits.
A new report by the National Academy of Social Insurance, "Americans Make Hard Choices on Social Security" shows that Americans' support for Social Security is unparalleled and they are willing to pay more in taxes to stabilize the system's finances and improve benefits. NASI reported:
Seven out of 10 participants prefer a package that would eliminate Social Security's long-term financing gap without cutting benefits. The preferred package would:
• Gradually, over 10 years, eliminate the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security. With this change, the 6 percent of workers who earn more than the cap would pay into Social Security all year, as other workers do. In return, they would get somewhat higher benefits.
• Gradually, over 20 years, raise the Social Security tax rate that workers and employers each pay from 6.2 percent of earnings to 7.2 percent. A worker earning $50,000 a year would pay about 50 cents a week more each year, matched by the employer.
• Increase Social Security's cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the inflation experienced by seniors.
• Raise Social Security's minimum benefit so that a worker who pays into Social Security for 30 years or more can retire at 62 or later and have benefits above the federal poverty line.
Exit polling after the midterm election, even in Republican-leaning states, mirrored the findings in the NASI report. Public Policy Polling found 86 percent opposition to allowing any cuts to Social Security and Medicare with 79 percent opposition among Republicans. Voters say they are also less likely to vote for a candidate who supports making cuts to Social Security and Medicare by 70 points. Of course, this isn't really a surprise to political candidates. It's why you will rarely hear politicians telling voters they plan to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for the millions of middle-class families who depend on them. Instead, candidates have successfully deployed a dodge-and-deflect strategy built on Orwellian language in which they say they'll "preserve" these programs when they actually mean privatize, "strengthen" when they mean slash, or "give you choices" when they mean you're on your own. While that strategy has certainly worked on the campaign trail, what remains to be seen is if the new Republican majority can successfully govern using the same approach.
Congress' new leadership may want to give former President George Bush a call. Not so many years ago, he believed his "voter mandate" cleared the way to privatize Social Security - cutting benefits and putting workers' guaranteed benefits at risk on Wall Street. That didn't turn out so well for the President simply because the American people understood then, as they do today, the abiding value of America's retirement and health security programs. Outside Washington, Social Security and Medicare aren't regarded as political or partisan because they are synonymous with economic survival for millions of workers, retirees, people with disabilities and their families.
The difference between campaigning and governing is vast -- something the members of the 114th Congress will discover first hand if cuts to Social Security and Medicare remain on their legislative agenda.
Follow Max Richtman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maxrichtman
Lambda Legal Sues Social Security Administration on Behalf of Texas Lesbian Widow and National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare
“SSA should not be telling widowed lesbians and gay men already grieving the loss of a spouse—‘you live in the wrong state so you don’t get social security spousal benefits.’”
Today Lambda Legal filed suit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow denied spousal benefits after the death of her wife, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (the National Committee), arguing that denying Social Security benefits to same-sex spouses because they live in states that discriminate against their marriages violates the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court struck down federal discrimination against same-sex spouses last year in United States v. Windsor ; Lambda Legal argues that SSA cannot perpetuate the same kind of discrimination now and leave lesbian and gay spouses without the financial protections of social security as they age.
“SSA should not be telling widowed lesbians and gay men already grieving the loss of a spouse—‘you live in the wrong state so you don’t get Social Security spousal benefits,’” said Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal. “Thousands of same-sex spouses, like our client Kathy Murphy, have married, even though their home states refuse to recognize their relationships. Since Windsor, these aging lesbian and gay Americans believe that, at the very least, their marriages finally will be respected by the federal government. But, relying on discriminatory state marriage bans declared unconstitutional by an avalanche of courts around the country, SSA continues to deny same-sex spouses their benefits. Widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they live, need Social Security spousal benefits, earned through years of hard work, to support them as they age. They should not have to wait one more day to be treated with dignity by the federal government.”
For more than 30 years, Texas residents Kathy Murphy, 62, and Sara Barker shared their lives together. Three decades after they first met, Kathy and Sara legally married in Massachusetts in 2010. Like other married couples, they hoped to grow old together and to live out their retirement years in safety, security, and dignity. Tragically, Sara lost her battle with cancer in March 2012 at age 62, leaving Kathy a widow. Because the couple lived in Texas, which refuses to recognize their marriage, SSA also won’t recognize the marriage, denying Kathy spousal survivor’s benefits earned by Sara over a life-time of work.
“Sara and I were blessed with nearly 32 years together, taking care of each other in all the ways any committed couple does - physically, emotionally and financially. Sara wouldn’t have wanted me to be in a position like this—we promised to support each other as a couple and if one of us should pass away. We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died and now the federal government won’t do its part. That money will ensure that I can take care of the home that Sara and I shared together,” Kathy said. “We worked hard to support ourselves, and our dream was to grow old together, side-by-side. My hope now is that I will be treated no differently than any surviving spouse who has faced this same devastating loss.”
“The basic tenets of the Social Security program are that if you contribute to the system throughout your working life, you and your family will receive those earned benefits in retirement, death or disability,” said Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee. “There is no rational reason why a couple living in Texas, or any other state, should continue to face this type of discrimination including the denial of the Social Security spousal benefits they have earned throughout their working lifetimes. It’s long past time to right this wrong.”
The National Committee, the organizational plaintiff in the case, is a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization dedicated to protecting Social Security for all generations and communities, including same-sex couples and their families. Kathy Murphy is a member of the National Committee.
The complaint filed in the District of Columbia federal district court today by Lambda Legal and co-counsel Dechert LLP argues that SSA’s refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who live in states that discriminate against their marriages, and denial of Social Security benefits to deserving spouses, violates the federal Constitution. SSA should not rely on discriminatory state marriage bans that have been declared unconstitutional by state and federal courts far and wide throughout the country as the basis to deny hard-earned spousal benefits.
Those with questions or concerns about discrimination or denial of a protection to which they are entitled should contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 1-866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.
Read the complaint to the court here.
This was originally posted at The Huffington Post by NCPSSM President/CEO Max Richtman
America’s longest-serving First Lady and social activist, Eleanor Roosevelt, would have celebrated her birthday this week. There have been so many momentous changes in our nation during the fifty-plus years since her death. Even so, one can’t help but wonder if we have truly fulfilled Eleanor’s hope for America, particularly when it comes to equity for women.
In so many ways, women have come a long way; however, American women are still lagging behind their male peers in too many significant measures. Retirement security is one of those areas where women still face a future marked by inequality. That’s why we at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare have launched “Eleanor’s Hope,” a national initiative mobilizing women of all ages to advocate for income equality, retirement security and health protection.
“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
The demographic reality facing most American women simply can’t be ignored. Women live longer than men, on average, yet their lifetime earnings are generally lower. They are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for a retirement plan or interrupt their careers to take care of family. The gender wage gap continues, meaning women earn only 78 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. Lower wages mean less is contributed to Social Security for their retirement. The good news is more women are participating in pension and retirement savings plans than ever before. The bad news is that the retirement savings gap persists.
According to the New School for Social Research, 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement have less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Almost half of middle-class workers will be poor or near poor in retirement and living on a $5-per-day food budget. The National Institute for Retirement Security reports four out of five working families have retirement savings less than one times their annual income and 45 percent do not have any retirement assets at all. The economic downturn was especially difficult for elderly women. The latest census reports that nearly 2.6 million elderly women are living in poverty and 733,000 of those live in extreme poverty. For women who live longer on lower benefits, America’s retirement crisis is very real. That’s why the financial protection Social Security provides is even more critical for the millions of women who depend on this vital program to keep them from poverty.
Not only do women live longer than men they are also more likely to suffer from three or more chronic conditions including arthritis, hypertension and osteoporosis, making Medicare especially vital for older women. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that out-of-pocket spending in 2009 for Medicare beneficiaries 65 and older was $4,844 for women compared to $4,230 for men. As beneficiaries age, out-of-pocket spending consumes a larger share of their income. At age 85, total out-of-pocket spending for women was estimated to be $7,555 compared to $5,835 for men. Clearly, the inequity women face in the workplace continues to follow them even into retirement.
“The battle for the individual rights of women is one of long standing and none of us
should countenance anything which undermines it.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
There are ways to address these inequities if we can find the political will. Our “Eleanor’s Hope” campaign will lead grassroots advocacy and education efforts in our communities and on Capitol Hill to build momentum in Congress to address these critical retirement issues. Our goal is to raise awareness, recruit and train new activists and bolster Congressional leaders who are making a difference on women’s health and retirement security issues. We’ll advocate for legislation that addresses the inequities threatening millions of retired women. Some of our proposals for Social Security and Medicare include:
- Providing Social Security credits for caregivers
- Improving Social Security survivor benefits
- Equalizing Social Security’s rules for disabled widows
- Strengthening the Social Security Cost of Living Allowance
- Boosting the basic Social Security benefit of all current and future beneficiaries
- Building on preventive care provisions in the Affordable Care Act and expanding coordination of care for beneficiaries with multiple chronic conditions.
- Generating greater savings on the cost of prescription drugs by increasing manufacturer discounts, allowing Medicare to receive the same drug rebates as Medicaid for dual-eligibles, and promoting lower drug costs by providing for faster development of generic drugs.
If this sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. However, just under 77 million baby boomers are retiring and more than half of them are women. Too many will face retirement inequity and insecurity. As we honor Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy this week and into the future, we must continue the work necessary to fulfill Eleanor’s hope for America.
“The future is literally in our hands to mold as we like. We cannot wait
until tomorrow. Tomorrow is now.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
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