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From the category archives: Aging Issues

Telling the Truth about Social Security's Funding isn't "Nasty" it's Just Reality

OK...we're just 18 days until election day and the final debate has come and gone.  Thank goodness.  

While Social Security and Medicare finally got their 90 seconds of fame last night, as expected, the question was framed exactly how Washington's well-funded fiscal hawks had hoped -- America can't afford "entitlements," (wrong), the programs are the biggest drivers of our debt (nope), are going bankrupt (actually no, they're not) and then the real heart of the question:  How are you going to cut benefits? 

Unfortunately, this approach guaranteed there would be no real conversation about the benefits millions of seniors depend on.  Here is NCPSSM's President/CEO, Max Richtman's reaction: 

“Rather than focusing on the candidate’s plans for improving Social Security and Medicare’s long-term solvency, strengthening benefits and tackling the retirement crisis looming for millions of workers and retirees, last night’s viewers were stuck with the same old crisis calls that ‘entitlements’ are bankrupting America.  No doubt, Washington’s billion dollar anti-Social Security lobby was happy to have some life pumped back into their middle-class killing campaign to cut benefits; however, America’s voters deserved far more from this debate.

Make no mistake about it, the choices between Clinton and Trump couldn’t be starker.  Donald Trump’s Social Security shape-shifting leaves voters with no idea of how he plans to improve solvency and benefit adequacy.  Doing nothing isn’t an option.  Contrary to his insult last night, hearing Hillary Clinton tell the truth about how to strengthen Social Security's funding isn't ‘nasty,’ it's just reality.  As long as America's wealthiest are allowed to avoid paying their share of payroll taxes, Social Security suffers. Period.  While Clinton supports expanding benefits, Trump’s only policy promise last night was to repeal Obamacare. That cuts years from Medicare’s solvency and billions in preventive care, prescription drugs and cost-reducing benefits to seniors.

Most Americans know that our nation faces a retirement crisis. Our economy depends on strong Social Security and Medicare programs and improving benefits is vital to keeping millions from poverty. Too bad voters weren’t allowed to hear any of that debated last night.”...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO


Why Tonight’s Debate Matters – Especially for America’s Seniors

By most accounts, tonight’s Vice Presidential debate candidates Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Governor Mike Pence will meet for the only time as virtual unknowns to many voters. NBC has this analysis:


“The two running mates are among the least known vice presidential candidates in recent elections. Remember Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney and even Joe Biden? Of course. But many voters in 2016 have never heard of Clinton's and Trump's number two. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 55 percent of respondents either didn't know enough about Kaine to form an opinion about him or were completely neutral. And 49 percent said the same thing about Pence.

 “While both candidates' primary goal is to reassure skeptical voters that their ticket can be trusted and that they compensate for the presidential candidates' perceived weaknesses, a secondary goal will be to drive home policy differences. Because both Pence and Kaine, with long histories of governing, are well steeped in policy, this could be the most substantive debate of any of the three presidential debates.”

If issues finally take center stage tonight, we would certainly hope to hear the stark differences between the two candidates on Social Security and Medicare described for voters. As we first detailed here, Mike Pence, was one of Congress’ most aggressive Social Security privatization supporters. As leader of the Republican Study Committee, the House’s far-right wing caucus, during the Bush administration, Pence doubled-down on President George Bush’s failed privatization efforts by calling for an even larger private accounts scheme to be implemented sooner, putting Americans at even greater fiscal risk than the President’s doomed plan. The Washington Times reported in 2005:

“The Bush plan allows workers to divert 4 percent of their wages into investment accounts, and to choose from a set of investment strategies. But the conservatives are leaning more toward a plan sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, which would allow diversion of 6 percent of wages.

‘Conservatives want to see personal retirement accounts that have immediate relevance to younger Americans, that they can see the value, and that will require that they be big and that they be implemented in the final bill without delay,’ said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the 100-member Republican Study Committee (RSC).”

Beyond privatization, Pence’s comments make it clear there isn’t a Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefit cut he won’t embrace:

“I think everything has to be on the table...I think it’s absolutely imperative, whether it’s Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.”

“With regard to entitlements we’re going to have to take some deep cuts in domestic spending.” CNN, 2010

“I was tea party before it was cool.”  Indianapolis Monthly, 2011

On health issues, Pence’s record is just as anti-senior as his Social Security stance. He aggressively opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and fought for its repeal, which would worsen Medicare’s solvency and take away billions in added benefits and cost savings for seniors.  He voted against the creation of a prescription drug benefit (Part D) in Medicare, opposes allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, he supported legislation that would deny non-emergency treatment for lack of a Medicare co-pay, and most importantly supports the GOP/Ryan budget which would destroy Medicare in favor of “Couponcare,” giving seniors a voucher to take shopping for insurance rather than protecting traditional Medicare’s guaranteed coverage.

Not surprisingly given his legislative history, we scored Mike Pence at 0% on issues important to seniors during the 2011-2012 Congress since he voted for multiple pieces of legislation that would cut benefits and programs that protect senior’s health and financial security.

Tim Kaine, on the other hand, has long opposed the privatization of Social Security.  He supports healthcare reform through the Affordable Care Act and has co-sponsored the Medicare Prescription Drug Negotiation Act (S. 31), which would end the ban on prescription drug price negotiations for Medicare, allowing the government’s largest health care program to use the same price negotiation process that the Veterans Administration uses to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.  Kaine is also a member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and co-sponsored the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. 

The differences between the two Vice Presidential candidates on the issues of Social Security and Medicare couldn’t be starker.  We only hope tonight’s debate provides an opportunity for voters to hear about the issues which directly impact millions of Americans’ lives. 

Social Security Should Change New Cell Phone Security Rule

As we first reported last week, new federal online security rules have led the Social Security Administration to require all new and current account holders to SSA’s online portal,  my Social Security, to have a text-enabled cell phone to access their account online. 

Since only a quarter (27%) of adults ages 65 and older own smartphones this new rule is baffling.  NCPSSM President/CEO, Max Richtman, has urged Social Security’s Acting Commission, Carolyn Colvin, to change the new requirement:

We are concerned that the new authentication requirements will mean that millions of Americans will find themselves cut off from this convenient avenue of service delivery. That’s why we urge you to move quickly to protect seniors by expanding your authentication procedures to include options that can be used by those who do not have text-capable cell phones. One option would be to send an authentication code to mySocialSecurity account holders via email. Such an expansion would go a long way in ensuring that seniors will continue to be able to access their accounts.

We understand the dilemma SSA confronts in making individuals’ personally-identifiable information available to them through an online service portal such as mySocialSecurity.

“Too little security can compromise the privacy of millions of Americans. Authentication procedures that are overly-rigorous or that offer too few options can close off an important avenue of service delivery and lead to increased phone and walk-in traffic in local Social Security offices. We urge you to review the new authentication procedures with the goal of striking the right balance between access and security. Establishing an authentication option based on email or a person’s landline telephone would significantly increase the number of account holders who would continue to have access to the services that mySocialSecurity so admirably provides.”

You can read our entire letter here

Will America's Seniors Vote Against Their Own Self-Interests...Again?

Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEOby Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

As a seniors’ advocate who’s worked on aging policy issues for decades, one of the most common questions I hear during campaign season is, “Why do America’s seniors vote against their own economic self-interests?” or more specifically, “Why have so many older (65+) Americans shifted to the Republican Party, even as it supports cutting the Social Security and Medicare benefits they depend on?” There is no single answer to this political quandary because there is far more at work in our fractured, divisive and polarized political system than simply age demographics. However, there’s no denying we could see American seniors vote against their own self-interests, once again in 2016, unless there’s a major awakening to what that vote means for them economically.

It’s important to start with some historical context. Democratic Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, created Social Security and Medicare and -- for decades -- the party’s strong support among seniors and the middle-class reflected that reality. However, that was then. The erosion of senior support for Democratic candidates has been steady.  In 1993, Democrats had a 12 point advantage over Republicans among senior voters.  Today, that advantage is gone and is instead a deficit.

While the GOP claims this shift proves cutting earned benefits is no longer the “third rail” of American politics, the increasingly populist tone of this 2016 Presidential campaign combined with the nomination of a GOP Presidential candidate who’s promised no cuts certainly belies that assertion. In truth what’s happened in recent years is that conservatives have successfully co-opted the Social Security and Medicare political debate by promising Americans they’ll “preserve” and “strengthen” these vital programs on the campaign trail, while actually proposing benefit cuts, Social Security private accounts, or coupon care for seniors in Medicare only after they’re elected. This Orwellian doublespeak isn’t accidental but a well-crafted (and apparently effective) messaging strategy. Donald Trump has now taken that messaging a step further by promising he’ll leave Social Security and Medicare alone, even as he surrounds himself with staff and a Vice Presidential running mate with very different plans. Trump himself supported the privatization of Social Security for more than a decade, calling it a “Ponzi scheme,” but by 2013 he’d done the political calculus and warned conservatives they simply couldn’t win elections that way:

“ ‘As Republicans, if you think you are going to change very substantially for the worse Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in any substantial way, and at the same time you think you are going to win elections, it just really is not going to happen,’ Mr. Trump said, adding that polls show that tea partyers are among those who don't want their entitlements changed."  Donald Trump, 2013 CPAC speech, Washington Times

You know the Republicans also have to get elected, you do know that. And if you watch Bernie, and if you watch Hillary, they don't only want to not cut, they want to increase Social Security.” Donald Trump, Morning Joe, February 2016

The American people, of all ages and political parties understand we don’t have to destroy Social Security and Medicare to “save” them. The latest survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance shows large majorities of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, agree on ways to strengthen Social Security, without cutting benefits. 74 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats agree that “it is critical to preserve Social Security even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by working Americans.”  Simply put, the American people are willing to pay more for Social Security.  They understand the growing impact these benefits have on individual lives and on our larger economy.  They know first-hand what America’s retirement crisis looks and feels like.

Retirement USA reports the gap between what Americans need to retire and what they actually have is $7.7 trillion. In fact, about half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings and a third of current workers aged 55 to 64 are likely to be poor or near-poor in retirement. Unfortunately, the median retirement account balance is a puny $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households. Vanguard reports that 401K balances, for those who do have them, fell a median of 11% last year.  Social Security remains the only stable retirement income for many Americans.

Social Security is also a stabilizing force for the economy.  A new report from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation shows that, in 2014 alone, Social Security delivered a $1.6 trillion fiscal boost nationwide as benefits were spent and cycled through the economy.  Unfortunately, Social Security’s economic contributions to communities, counties, and states continue to be misunderstood and often ignored in Washington’s fiscal debates. This election could change that.

The party that created Social Security and Medicare has an opportunity to regain lost ground by drawing a clear line in the sand in defense of the core American values of hard work, fairness and compassion embodied in our nation’s most successful programs – Social Security and Medicare. The Democrat’s 2016 platform is the strongest statement on strengthening Social Security seen in decades.  By pledging to fight efforts to “cut, privatize or weaken” Social Security, supporting expansion of the program, lifting the payroll tax and exploring a new COLA formula for seniors, the Democrats have tackled head-on the critical challenges facing millions of average Americans. Conversely, the Republican 2016 platform says benefit cuts must be considered, raising revenue rejected and privatization (the “power of the markets”) preferred. It’s no wonder Donald Trump has been running noticeably silent on Social Security and Medicare this summer, given the Republican Party’s clear rejection of his Social Security and Medicare campaign promises.

Senior turnout will play a huge role in November’s elections which means Democrats must continue to say what they mean, and mean what they say in a full-throated defense against attacks to America’s most effective health and retirement security programs.  Senior voters must also remain vigilant and demand more from candidates than empty promises and political double-speak, otherwise they may cast yet another vote against their own economic self-interests and end up with the biggest case of buyers’ remorse in American political history. 

New Federal Privacy Rules Pose a Challenge for Some Seniors in Social Security

All new and current account holders to Social Security’s online portal,  my Social Security, will now be required to have a text-enabled cell phone to access their account online. The Social Security Administration says:

“People will not be able to access their personal my Social Security account if they do not have a cell phone or do not wish to provide the cell phone number. We understand the inconvenience the text message solution may cause for some of our customers. We recognize that not every my Social Security account holder may have a cell phone, have consistent cell service in a rural area, or be able to receive a text message.”

In fact, a Pew Research Center report shows a small minority of adults ages 65 and older own smartphones.

“Overall, older Americans are less likely to be online, have broadband at home or own a mobile device. The same applies to smartphones: Only a quarter (27%) of adults ages 65 and older own them.”

Leading many to wonder:

“Certainly, cybersecurity is important and more so for Social Security numbers that can be used for identity theft. But there MUST be a better way than locking out the majority of people the agency exists to serve.”...Time Goes By blog

This change was prompted by a new executive order requiring all federal agencies that provide online access to consumers’ personal information to use something called multi-factor authentication; this means that to login to a site, account holders need to enter more than one credential — in this case a username/password and a text code — in order to verify their identity. The new system has already encountered snags. Verizon customers complained that they could not get the cellphone security code. The SSA now says it has fixed the problem; however,

“Due to high volume of traffic to our website, you may experience problems receiving your security code via text message or entering the security code you receive. The problem preventing all Verizon wireless customers from receiving the cell phone security code has been fixed. Please check back in a few days.”

SSA’s use of technology to reach a growing number of retirees, particularly baby boomers who have been increasing their online/cell usage, makes sense.  However, the agency’s backup for those beneficiaries who can’t access their online accounts without a cell phone are its call centers, which Congress continues to underfund:

“When the teleservice centers are adequately funded and staffed, SSA’s 800 number performs well.  However, starting in 2011, budget cuts forced SSA to freeze hiring, and the teleservice centers lost many agents through attrition.  In just three years, SSA lost more than 15 percent of its 800 number staff. Wait times and busy rates spiked. In 2014, wait times peaked at over 22 minutes and busy rates at 13 percent.  After a small funding increase in 2014 enabled SSA to replace some of the agents lost during the hiring freeze, service began to rebound — though it remains well below previous levels.”...Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Surely, there must be a better way to improve security and provide convenient access to online Social Security accounts without shifting so many seniors without cell phones back to currently underfunded teleservice centers and district offices which Congress, so far, seems unwilling to fund at levels needed to serve the retiring baby boom generation. 

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