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From the category archives: Retirement

It’s (Past) Time to Reauthorize the Older Americans Act

Chances are if you, or anyone in your family, is 65 or older your life has been impacted by an Older Americans Act program.  From Meals on Wheels to senior centers, prevention of physical and financial abuse, computer training to legal assistance, OAA programs touch the lives of millions of seniors and their families.  This myriad of programs provides home and community-based services making it possible for older adults to remain independent, but they’ve continually faced flat or shrinking budgets at a time of growing needs.  Funding programs that allow seniors to age in place is cost-effective; however, Congress has not reauthorized these programs since 2010. 

Tomorrow, legislation to reauthorize OAA will be considered by the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) committee . We’ve urged the Senate to pass this reauthorization:

“S. 192 builds on the core programs of the Older Americans Act (OAA) – including congregate and home-delivered meals, help for family caregivers, transportation and senior center services - which enable older adults to remain as independent as possible. We support provisions in S. 192 that protect against elder abuse and strengthen long-term care ombudsman services, as well as programs such as fall prevention and chronic disease self-management that promote healthy living. OAA services help seniors avoid hospitalizations and nursing home care, and, as a result, save federal and state funds that otherwise would be spent on such care. In addition to reauthorizing OAA programs, increasing OAA funding is crucial to meet the growing needs of seniors and to compensate for the lack of adequate funding over past years, a funding shortfall that was aggravated by the sequester.” 

We’ve created a video to introduce Members of Congress to the real-life impact their decisions have on average American seniors. 

 

Will the President’s Commitment to Middle-Class Agenda Protect Social Security too?

There is always plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking after each year’s State of the Union.  However, reading the commentary on last night’s speech was especially interesting since President Obama has clearly decided to take the gloves off in pursuing a popular middle-class economic agenda the American people support but the GOP-controlled Congress has no intention of passing:

“Republicans said that they were caught off guard by a major component of the president’s 2015 agenda, which he announced over the weekend and detailed further in his speech, to raise taxes and fees on the wealthiest taxpayers and the largest financial firms to pay for, among other things, tax breaks for the middle class and free community college. While these programs may prove popular with many Americans, Republicans said that they hoped the American public would see them as a ploy from a president who knows Congress will never pass them.”  The New York Times

What the Republican leadership has supported is more tax cuts for huge corporations and the wealthy plus cuts to Social Security and Medicare. While the President didn’t emphasize Social Security and Medicare in last night’s State of the Union, he did highlight their importance to American families’ economic and health security.  Truth is, you simply can’t improve the financial outlook for average Americans without protecting these programs.  But of course, these days “protect” has very different meanings depending on whom you talk to in Washington.

Remember all those Congressional campaign promises about “protecting” Social Security?  For the newly sworn-in GOP House what that actually meant was voting just hours after taking their oaths of office to put Social Security benefits cuts at the top of the Congressional agenda.  You’ve got to give the House leadership credit for stealth.  No one, outside a small circle of Republican Rules Committee members and GOP leadership, even knew this Social Security attack was coming.  Slipped inside what’s usually a routine administrative start to each Congressional session was an unprecedented change to House rules that would allow a 20% benefit cut for millions of disabled Americans unless there are broader Social Security benefit cuts or tax increases. Of course, House Republicans have no intention of passing tax increases so guess what’s left?  Benefit cuts to millions of Americans who receive Social Security.

This House vote illustrates the increasingly Orwellian nature of our political discourse, where words have little meaning because "save” means "slash" and "protect" means "privatize.” What’s even more noxious about this particular assault on Social Security is the ongoing effort to pit beneficiaries – retirees, the disabled, survivors and their families – against each other.  Proponents of this stealth rule change in the House claim seniors will somehow suffer if the disabled are allowed access to the benefits they too have contributed to throughout their working years. That’s a particularly absurd notion since the majority of disability recipients are also older Americans.  However, the divide and conquer politics of fear all-too-often work.  This latest Social Security attack is built on a foundation of lies intended to demonize America’s disabled community.

No doubt, you’ve already heard the messaging, most recently espoused in an especially candid way by Senator and Presidential hopeful Rand Paul that: Social Security disability fraud is rampant because it’s so easy to receive benefits and people would rather collect a hefty check from the government than work.  It’s the 2015 incarnation of “our nation is full of ‘welfare queens’ and ‘greedy geezers.’” It also suffers from the same basic problem...it’s simply not true.

So let’s break down a few of these Disability Myths.

 

MYTH: “Disability has become a form of permanent welfare for a lot of folks. It's not that hard to prove a mental illness, or mental issues, or pain issues.” 

Not that hard?  So, why are the vast majority of claims denied?

 FACT: “Nearly 80 percent of applicants are denied at the initial level, and fewer than 4 in 10 are approved after all levels of appeal. Underscoring the strictness of the disability standard, thousands of applicants die each year while waiting for benefits. And one in five male and nearly one in six female beneficiaries die within five years of being approved for benefits. Disability Insurance beneficiaries have death rates three to six times higher than other people their age.” Center for American Progress

 

It’s seems pretty ridiculous to claim the system’s being widely-abused when so many die just years after receiving benefits or while they’re still waiting for an answer.

MYTH:  Growth in Social Security disability claims is “astonishing”, an “epidemic” and “startling.” 

Actually, it’s called demographics.  Ever heard of the baby boomers? Former SSA Commissioners from both Republican and Democratic administrations have taken issue with this fact-free, hysteria-laden portrayal of the disability program’s growth.

 FACT:  “It is true that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years. The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high-disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now "insured" for DI based on their own prior contributions.” Open Letter from former SSA Commissioners

 

 “As Baby Boomers retire, the program’s growth has already leveled off and is projected to decline further in the coming years.”  Center for American Progress

 

MYTH:  The entire system is “broken,” rife with “fraud” and “rubber-stamping judges” bankrupting the entire Social Security program.

 

 FACT:  The Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of Social Security benefits that include Disability Insurance had an error rate of just 0.6 percent. Government Accountability Office

 

Social Security touches the lives of virtually every American family and has unparalleled support across all ages, political parties and demographics.  The GOP led House clearly hopes to drive a wedge through that coalition, pitting seniors against people with disabilities, young versus old and workers versus retirees.  So much for a new Congress that “works together.”

President Obama’s economics agenda for the middle-class is not only popular but desperately needed for millions of Americans left behind in this recovery...including Social Security beneficiaries of all ages. Of course, the GOP Congress won’t pass it but there’s always 2016. 

Congress Sends Millions of Retirees a Holiday Present – An Historic Pension Cut

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.

 

NCPSSM Urges Senate to End Inequity Facing Older Women

NCPSSM Board Chair, Catherine Dodd, testified before the Senate Finance Committee today on the retirement challenges facing America's women and the National Committee's Eleanor's Hope initiative to improve Social Security benefits:

“22 million older women receive Social Security benefits yet the inequalities they face threaten their retirement security. Persistent gender wage discrimination, work gaps taken to care for loved ones, the lack of pensions and generally longer lives mean women receive a significantly lower Social Security benefit than men.  While the Social Security system is gender-neutral, life is not and America’s senior women pay the price for that inequality for as long as they live. We urge Congress to level the playing field for millions of our nation’s older women.”  Catherine Dodd, PhD, RN and NCPSSM Board Chair

Members of the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony from witnesses today in a hearing entitled, “Social Security: Is a Key Foundation of Economic Security Working for Women?”  National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Board Chair, Catherine Dodd, urged the Senate to address the inequities that reduce the average monthly Social Security benefit for women.  In 2012 the average woman retiree received $1,103 a month while a retired man received a $1,414 monthly benefit.  The National Committee believes women deserve an adequate retirement income whether a work life is spent in the home in the paid workforce or a combination of the two.  Toward that end, our new initiative, Eleanor’s Hope -- named in honor of first lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt -- is mobilizing women of all ages to advocate for income equality, retirement security and health protection for women.  

Some of the National Committee’s proposals for improving benefits in Social Security presented to the Senate Finance Committee today 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

You can see Catherine Dodd’s full Senate testimony here.

 

 

The Social Security “Crisis” Created by Congress

While the well-financed Wall Street-backed campaign to convince Americans that Social Security is in crisis (even though the facts prove just the opposite) has sputtered over time, that hasn’t stopped some in Congress from inflicting a death-by-a-billion-cuts budget strategy on the Social Security Administration's administrative finances. SSA has received less than its budget request in 14 of the last 16 years.  In FY 2011-2013 alone, SSA received nearly $3 billion less than it requested from Congress to do its job.  A job that is increasingly challenging as the agency serves near record number of visitors as the nation’s baby boomers retire.  Not surprisingly these short-sighted “serve more with less” budgets mean beneficiaries are paying the price:

“Each day, almost 163,000 people visit field offices and more than 348,000 people try to reach an SSA agent for assistance.  In FY 2014 about 13% of SSA’s visitors waited over an hour for service.  Despite agency online service initiatives and the reductions of public service ours, field offices in FY 2014 served 40.7 million visitors.  Field office visitors waited 50% longer in FY 2014 than in FY 2012.  In FY 2014, nearly 5.5 million SSA visitors waited over an hour to be served and over 2 million visitors left without service.  SSA’s 800 number network had a marked deterioration in FY 2014 in answering calls to agents, demonstrated by an answer rate of about 54%.  The field office answer rate was about 67%, which also represents a substantial degradation in performance over the past few years.”  -- Letter to Office of Management and Budget, signed by 35 Social Security advocacy organizations, November 2014

64 SSA field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices have closed, which is the largest five-year decline in the agency’s 79 year history. In testimony submitted to the Senate Aging Committee earlier this year, NCPSSM President/CEO Max Richtman urged the SSA to reject suggestions that online and self-service options should replace in-person services currently provided in field offices:

“...the National Committee believes any individual who has paid Social Security taxes has the right to face-to-face service within a reasonable distance of their home. The National Committee also is concerned that seniors and low-income individuals who are accustomed to conducting business on a face-to-face basis will suffer undue hardship when faced with the need for a benefit verification letter or SSN printout.  Many in this population lack access to and are not familiar with computers and printers.  I am also concerned that shifting this administrative burden to SSA call centers will only increase the current average wait time of 26 minutes.” 

Social Security advocates, including NCPSSM's Max Richtman, SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin and Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) were among the attendees of a Capitol Hill conference on the challenges facing the Social Security Administration. All agreed on the need to fund SSA far beyond what Congress has approved in recent years.  Results of a new national poll were also released showing the majority of Americans want to keep Social Security field offices open to serve the millions of Americans who need the one-on-one attention they provide.

It’s time to end the “starve the beast” politics promoted for decades by those opposed to programs like Social Security.  Annual defunding of SSA fulfills a political goal at the expense of millions of American seniors, the disabled, survivors and their families who depend on Social Security.

 

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