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From the category archives: Social Security

Cutting Social Security & Medicare = Economic Patriotism?

If you had any doubt about just how stark the differences are between the Republican and Democratic approach to fixing our economy, these dueling letters between Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and GOP Senator Orrin Hatch should clear that up for you quickly.  At issue is the idea of “economic patriotism.”

First, some background...

There’s currently a loophole in our tax code that allows American companies to dodge paying taxes by renouncing their corporate citizenship, leaving operations here but claiming an overseas address. This legal tax dodge costs our nation billions of dollars each year.  

“The practice has become known as “inversion.” But what it really amounts to is desertion. And it could cost Americans tens of billions of dollars. There are 47 firms in the last decade that have exploited this loophole, according to new data compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. But it’s a hot topic again because at least a dozen U.S. firms are currently considering taking advantage of it.”...Center for American Progress

The President’s 2015 budget would make it harder for firms to reap the benefits of being an American company while simultaneously dodging their tax obligations by requiring a minimum 50% foreign ownership to avoid U.S. taxes (it’s currently only 20%). This week, Lew sent a letter to Congress urging quick action (okay, try not to laugh...) to pass inversion legislation.

“Congress should enact legislation immediately...to shut down this abuse of our tax system. What we need as a nation is a new sense of economic patriotism, where we all rise and fall together.  We know that the American economy grows best when the middle class participates fully and when the economy grows from the middle out.  We should not be providing support for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

Sounds reasonable, right?  Not according to the ranking GOP member of the Senate Finance Committee who penned a testy letter in reply.  Not only does Senator Hatch reject the legislative fix offered by Senate Democrats to recoup the billions lost to corporate scofflaws he also redefines the idea of “economic patriotism” by shifting the target from known corporate tax dodgers to American families who depend on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program:

“I must disagree with the administration's position that we should, in the short term, enact punitive, retroactive policies designed to force companies to remain domiciled in the United States.”

“My hope is that your definition of "economic patriotism" is not so narrow as to only include a particular business practice ... I hope that you share my view that "economic patriotism" includes a desire to fix the problems that are truly ailing our country and threatening the livelihoods of future generations. Non-partisan watchdogs and rating agencies have been issuing warnings about our ballooning national debt and runaway entitlements for years now. These issues represent the greatest threat to our fiscal and economic security...”

Welcome to Washington, where you’re an “economic patriot” if you turn a blind eye to corporate tax dodgers who owe this nation billions of dollars and instead take it from middle-class benefits paid for by average Americans , the truest patriots of all, who worked a lifetime building the economy that fuels those corporate profits to begin with. 

Disabled Americans are Conservatives’ New “Welfare Queens”

“There is a quiet, covert war being waged on Social Security. The tactic? Divide and conquer. Today, detractors try to use Social Security Disability Insurance as a back door to cut the program as a whole. And, we will organize and fight back against today’s attacks aimed at some of the most vulnerable Americans: the disabled.”  Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Divide and conquer politics is certainly nothing new in Washington.  From Ronald Reagan’s mythological nation of “welfare queens” to Alan Simpson’s “greedy geezer” myth of hordes of seniors driving Lexus’ to their gated communities – politicians love to create villains, even if the facts simply don’t back up the political spin.

"It hangs together as a good story because it's consistent with people's perception of the real world," says Craig R. Smith, who was a speechwriter for former President Gerald Ford and a consulting writer with President George H.W. Bush.  "Like in any good mythology, you need heroes and villains and in the Welfare Queen, you had a villain who was taking advantage of the system."

And so it goes with conservatives’ latest target – disabled Americans receiving Social Security benefits. No doubt, you’ve already heard the messaging: 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 2014 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.” Nina Easton, Fox News commentator

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 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

 “...four-fifths of the program’s total enrollment in 2013 — and over two-thirds of the growth in enrollment since 1980 — stems from five easily quantifiable factors:  growth in the overall working-age population, the aging of that population, growth in women’s labor force participation, the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age, and the growth in DI receipt among women eligible for benefits to match men’s rate of receipt. In short, the factors driving DI’s growth are reasonably well understood, were long anticipated, and do not depict a program that is ‘out of control.’” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

“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

 An investigation by the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General looked at the 10 states with the highest increase in disability applications from 2007-2011.  That report found that while the number of applications increased...approvals declined. Social Security Administration OIG

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a leading promoter of the Disability Myths. .  His committee has zeroed in on the casework of just four out of 1,400 disability judges to bolster his claims of widespread fraud in the program. 

“Issa's report twists all these facts and figures to create a fantasy of a program running amuck. He says "an extraordinary number" of administrative judges "were allowing the vast majority of their decisions"; in fact the overall approval rate of cases that come before the judges is 58%.”  Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times

“First, these judges were deliberately selected by the House Oversight Committee because they were outliers who approve a high percentage of the cases brought to them. The Social Security Administration has almost 1400 administrative judges. Undoubtedly many are also outliers on the other side, denying most of the cases brought to them.” Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

“...not all judges are "rubber-stamping" disability claims, and the overall allowance rate fell from 72 percent in 2005 to 56 percent last year.” Andrew Biggs, American Enterprise Institute   

The timing of this attack on Social Security’s disability program is not an accident. It’s the cornerstone of Congressional Republicans’ campaign to oppose both President Obama’s nomination of a new Social Security Administration Commissioner and (what in the past has been) the routine reallocation of the Trust Fund to prevent a 20% disability benefit cut in 2016.

Rather than address the disability shortfall head-on, as so many Congresses have before, conservatives hope to hold the disability program hostage in return for cuts throughout the entire Social Security program.

“Playing chicken with the trust fund would be devastating, Ruffing said. “If Congress allows the disability trust fund to run dry, then what will happen is benefits to all recipients will be cut by approximately 20 percent, which is obviously an unacceptable outcome,” she said. “It’s a completely unnecessary form of brinkmanship.” Kathy Ruffing, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on NBC News

 “Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has "reallocated" payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target.” Open Letter from former SSA Commissioners

“Reallocation is a straightforward process and the need for it does not come as a surprise,” Virginia P. Reno, NASI Vice President for Income Security Policy

Just as with Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story, there is no doubt that fraud exists. But it’s clearly not what Disability Mythologists claim.  As Social Security advocates, we’ve long supported efforts to crack down on fraud and abuse because strong Social Security and Medicare programs depend on the efficient and appropriate payment of benefits only to those who qualify.  The American people expect the contributions they’ve made throughout their working lives will be spent appropriately.  So, if it is possible to further rid Social Security’s disability program of it’s tiny percentage of fraudulent claims then we whole-heartedly support those efforts. 

However, let’s be very clear about one thing -- that’s not what the Disability Myth is all about.  This isn’t a debate between one side that supports Social Security fraud and those who oppose it.  This is a debate between those who refuse to allow Americans with disabilities to be held as political hostages with threats of a 20% benefit cut by those whose true goal is to cut the entire Social Security program, through privatization or countless other means. That’s the ultimate goal of this divide and conquer strategy which portrays America’s disabled workers, the same people who have paid for their earned benefits, as villains.

We’ll end just as we began, with this warning from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH):

“Opponents of Social Security realize that when they attack the program head on, they lose. So, their strategy is two-fold: First, convince the public that the disability insurance program is bankrupt. Second, separate Social Security from disability insurance in the eyes of voters. We need to recognize these attacks for what they are – backdoor attempts to weaken Social Security by dismantling disability insurance.”

SAME Act Provides Social Security Equity for Same-Sex Couples and their Families

One year ago today, the Supreme Court issued its landmark Windsor ruling in the Defense of Marriage Act providing benefits to legally married same-sex married couples.  Since then, federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration have been working to define benefits eligibility for millions of Americans.

Since the Windsor ruling, LGBT couples in 22 states and the District of Columbia have become fully eligible to receive Social Security benefits.  But that’s not true for the same sex couples who live in the remaining 28 states that do not recognize their marriages.  Unless Congress or the courts intervene, Social Security claims filed by LGBT couples who reside in the “non-recognition” states will -- in effect -- be denied.  That’s why the National Committee is proud to join a coalition of advocates today in announcing our support of the Social Security and Marriage Equality (SAME) Act.  The legislation introduced by Senators Patty Murray(D-WA) and Mark Udall(D-CO) and Representatives Ron Kind(D-WI), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen(R-FL), Allyson Schwartz(D-PA) and Elizabeth Esty(D-CT) extends full Social Security benefits to legally married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live.   

“Unless Congress or the courts intervene, Social Security claims filed by LGBT couples who reside in the “non-recognition” states will -- in effect -- be denied. LGBT families should not be forced to wait any longer. Justice delayed for LGBT families who live in states that do not recognize same sex marriage is justice denied. It is time for Congress to pass legislation that would make all couples and their children fully eligible to receive Social Security benefits regardless of where they live and who they love.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

To help LGBT families navigate the confusion about their Social Security benefit eligibility, in October of 2013 the National Committee Foundation launched the “Know Your Rights” campaign nationwide.  It’s the first outreach program of its kind and a model for a national education campaign potentially reaching millions of LGBT Americans coast to coast.  

Social Security News

There is a lot of news coming from the Social Security Administration today.  First, SSA has published new instructions that allow the agency to process more claims for same-sex couples who qualify for Social Security benefits. 

“This latest policy development lets the agency recognize some non-marital legal relationships as marriages for determining entitlement to benefits. These instructions also allow Social Security to begin processing many claims in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages or non-marital legal relationships.  We have consulted with the Department of Justice and determined that the Social Security Act requires the agency to follow state law in Social Security cases. The new policy also addresses Supplemental Security Income claims based on same-sex relationships. Your same-sex marriage may affect your SSI eligibility or payment amount.

If you are in, or are a surviving spouse of, a same-sex marriage or non-marital legal same-sex relationship, we encourage you to apply right away for benefits.”

The SSA website has more details including this Fact Sheet.

Also, today President Obama announced plans to nominate current Acting SSA Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, to serve as the Commissioner.  Colvin has served in an “acting” capacity for more than a year so it’s encouraging to see that critical position at SSA finally filled.  In addition to being a former NCPSSM Board of Trustee Member, the nominee has filled numerous roles at the SSA going back to 1994.  She has also served as the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services for both D.C. and Montgomery County. 

More Retirees – Fewer Social Security Offices to Help

The Social Security Administration’s budget has been under assault for years. Today the Senate Special Committee on Aging will examine the real-life impact these cuts are having on millions of seniors, people with disabilities, survivors and their families:

“The hearing, the culmination of a bipartisan committee staff investigation into service reductions at the Social Security Administration (SSA), comes at a time when baby boomers are filing record numbers of retirement, disability and survivor claims with the agency.  Despite the rising demand, the SSA is currently in the midst of the largest five-year decline in field offices in its 79-year history.  Budget cuts have, in part, led the agency to close 64 field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices since 2010.  The SSA has also shed some 11,000 workers over the last three years and continues to reduce or eliminate a variety of in-person services while trying to shift seniors and others online to conduct their business.”

According to the New York Times:

 “The field offices served over 43 million people last year. About 10 percent of the visitors filed for benefits, and 30 percent were seeking new or replacement Social Security cards.

... Nancy A. Berryhill, a deputy commissioner at the agency, said its budget and work force had not kept pace with what she described as “a staggering 27 percent increase” in claims for retirement benefits, to 3.3 million last year, from 2.6 million in 2007.

Social Security encourages consumers to use the Internet to do business with the agency. In 2013, Ms. Berryhill said, ‘we received nearly half of all Social Security retirement and disability applications online, and the percentage of people who choose to file online continues to grow.’”

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times correctly points out the problem with this shift to online services:

But is that an adequate substitute? No way. For one thing, you have to know that your statement is available via the Internet, you have to know where to find it, and you have to be able to navigate a registration procedure that is not all that user-friendly -- especially for someone not familiar with navigating the Web, and double-especially for someone without easy access to a computer. Despite a claim that we all live in the digital world today, those are not small groups.

Importantly, the Social Security Administration has made no discernible effort to proactively advise Americans that the paper statements are a thing of the past. In other words, what was once its most effective outreach to millions of people has disappeared without a trace, or a single word of warning.

Social Security says that if you have problems accessing the online service, you can get help at a Social Security office. Of course, those offices, which used to be open until 4 p.m., are now open only till 3:30. Starting in mid-November, they'll only be open till 3. And starting Jan. 2, they'll be closing at noon Wednesdays.

"There's already an enormous amount of unhappiness for people who walk to their Social Security office and find a sign saying, 'We closed at 3:30,'" says Webster Phillips, a former Social Security associate commissioner who now works with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”

In testimony submitted to the Senate Aging Committee, NCPSSM President/CEO Max Richtman says:

“...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.” 

While some Members of Congress appear quick to blame the Social Security Administration for these closures, as if they’ve happened in a vacuum, others have been warning years of budget cuts to the SSA -- happening at the same time service needs are increasing --  would ultimately hurt millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security benefits they've worked a lifetime to earn:

Representative Xavier Becerra of California, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the agency’s operating budget, which was $11 billion in 2013, about 4 percent less than in 2010. ‘No one should be surprised that service hours have been reduced, wait times have increased and local offices have closed,’ Mr. Becerra said.”

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