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From the category archives: Budget

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.

 

The Social Security Disconnect Between Congress and Everywhere Else

It’s that time of the year (just days before Election Day) when every Congressional candidate extolls the virtue of Social Security.  Too many of these candidates will then return to Congress (with your vote) singing a different tune lamenting that America simply “can’t afford entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare.  Only after Election Day will you discover that “save” actually means “slash” and “protect” means “privatize.” They’ll claim your benefits must be cut or programs privatized to “save” the programs for future generations.  The problem is...that’s simply not true and the American people of all political parties, ages and incomes don’t believe that cutting benefits is the best way to strengthen Social Security.

This Social Security disconnect is illustrated in a big way in a new report released today 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.  We highly recommend you read the entire study (it’s important!) but here are some key highlights:

To gauge Americans’ policy preferences, the survey used trade-off analysis — a technique that is widely used in market research to learn which product features consumers want and are willing to pay for. The trade-off exercise allowed survey participants to choose among different packages of Social Security changes. As lawmakers would do, they weighed how each policy change would affect workers, retirees, and the program’s future financing gap, and then chose among different packages of reforms.

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% 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% of earnings to 7.2%. 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.

Again, not only do Americans value Social Security they are willing to pay to sustain and improve it.  This package was preferred by large majorities across political parties and income levels. 68% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats, and 73% of independents favored this no-cuts plan, as do 71% of study participants with incomes above $75,000 and 68% of those with incomes under $35,000. 

We suggest that if you see a political candidate on the campaign trail between now and Election Day ask him/her about this plan and its support by the vast majority of all Americans.   Will they support fixing Social Security’s long-term solvency while also improving benefits without cutting the program?

It can be done, if only there was the political will to do it.

Social Security Resumes Statement Mailings

We were happy to find this in our email box today:

Dear Colleague:

I am pleased to announce that, beginning this month, we are resuming periodic mailings of paper Social Security Statements to workers age 18 and older.  Even though most workers will receive a mailing every 5 years, we encourage everyone to create a secure my Social Security account at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount, which will allow them immediate access to their online Statement anytime.

The Statement is a valuable financial planning tool providing workers with important individualized information regarding their earnings, tax contributions, and estimates for future retirement, disability and survivors benefits.

Please read the full press release, including a statement by Social Security’s Acting Commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, here.

Thank you for your continued support as we strive to keep workers informed about Social Security. Please help us encourage all workers to sign up for a my Social Security account to regularly review their earnings record and obtain estimates of future benefits for themselves and their families.

We've long advocated for the resumption of mailing paper statements to the many seniors who don't have access to or fluency on the internet and are thankful the SSA has resumed these mailings. 

Why a Medicare Flat Line is Good News for Seniors

While a flat line in the medical world is usually bad news...when it comes to health care costs in Medicare, this flat line is a good thing.  We reported earlier on the latest Congressional Budget Office forecast for Medicare and why that news is being ignored by Washington’s well-financed anti-entitlement lobby and the fiscal hawks they support in Congress. 

Today, the New York Times provides even more good news for Medicare and bad news for anti-Social Security and Medicare scolds:

“Medicare spending isn’t just lower than experts predicted a few years ago. On a per-person basis, Medicare spending is actually falling.

If the pattern continues, as the Congressional Budget Office forecasts, it will be a rarity in the Medicare program’s history. Spending per Medicare patient has almost always grown more rapidly than the economy as a whole, often by a wide margin.”

 

For years now, Wall Street funded fiscal hawk groups have been promising fiscal Armageddon unless Congress immediately cut benefits to middle-class seniors and their families. Contrary to that billionaire-financed bluster, the truth is there are clearly ways to see savings in Medicare through lower health care costs, not just by slashing benefits:

“The recent pattern reflects two main factors. One is that the baby boom generation is entering the program. In the long term, that’s a problem for Medicare’s finances because the number of people it must care for is going to surge. But in the short term, it skews the group enrolled in Medicare toward a younger, healthier population.

The second factor is more surprising and consequential. Over the last few years, Medicare patients have been using fewer expensive medical services, particularly hospital care and prescription drugs. The budget office is increasingly persuaded that such a pattern is going to last for a while.”

And there are even more proposals that could be enacted which don’t single out seniors for benefits cuts.  How about allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug costs like the VA does for veterans?  Or fully allow the proposed reductions in billions of dollars in federal overpayments to MA private insurance companies to be enacted, as proposed by the Affordable Care Act?  This CBO report clearly proves there are ways to manage costs beyond the benefit-cutting or privatization schemes preferred by Congress’ self-proclaimed deficit hawks:

Joan McCarter at Daily Kos sums it up best this way:

“Here's what's particularly significant in this: "Reductions made in the last four years alone are responsible for 10-year savings of more than $715 billion, which dwarfs nearly every deficit-reduction measure currently under discussion." Take that, Paul Ryan.

Here's the thing. Medicare is going to be facing issues when the baby boom cohort gets older and sicker. But this trend in shrinking costs gives policymakers time to look at reforms that do not require benefit cuts, that don't require pain for Medicare patients. That means there's no reason for another Paul Ryan budget that slashes the safety net or for another catfood commission calling for raising the Medicare eligibility age or more cost-sharing by patients. Take note, Democrats, and stop with the deficit fetish already.”

When Privatize Means Protect and Slash Means Save - the 2014 Campaign Continues

It must be campaign season! GOP candidates, under Karl Rove’s tutelage, have doubled-down on their Medicare and Social Security dodge and deflect strategy. The heart of this political strategy is to avoid talking about GOP candidates’ true plans for Social Security and Medicare while simultaneously portraying their opponents as the “enemies of seniors.”

Greg Sargent offers this perspective:

“It is remarkable to watch Rove’s group try to position multiple Democratic Senators as the real threat to social insurance for the elderly, for the third straight cycle — and even more intriguingly, to use Simpson Bowles to do so. After all, Simpson Bowles is still widely treated as a paragon of unimpeachable fiscally responsible centrism, and Dems have long been pilloried by Beltway fiscal scold types for refusing to embrace its sanctified prescriptions for deficit reduction.

Indeed, this sort of Crossroads rhetoric should outrage fiscal conservatives. As Philip Klein put it in a post slamming Crossroads’ ad against Mark Pryor: ‘if Republicans want to be a limited government party, they have to be making the case for reforming entitlements — not running ads attacking Democrats from the left.’ “

As a reminder, Simpson Bowles is the Wall Street backed plan which would raise the retirement age, change the Social Security formula to cut benefits by 5%-30% while also changing the COLA formula to cut benefits for both current and future retirees.  Simpson Bowles has been touted by conservatives and centrists as a “balanced plan” even though it imposes 75% in benefit cuts (largely on the middle class) and only 25% in revenue increases.   How incredibly cynical for Karl Rove and crew to attempt yet another rewrite of history on behalf of his GOP congressional clients, most of whom would not only support Simpson-Bowles but also the GOP/Ryan budget which would be especially devastating to Social Security and Medicare.

So, as you will inevitably see these ads make their way onto your local channels, here’s what you need to remember about the GOP campaign strategy on Social Security and Medicare from their 2012 playbook and our blog post back then:

A memo and campaign how-to video from the National Republican Congressional Committee provides an incredibly clear and cynical look behind their political curtain, as the NRCC gives Republican candidates tips on how to dodge the discussion they really don’t want to have about the votes they’ve already cast on Medicare:

“Do not say: ‘entitlement reform,’ ‘privatization,’ ‘every option is on the table,’ … Do say: ‘strengthen,’ ‘secure,’ ‘save,’ ‘preserve, ‘protect.’”  NRCC Memo

It’s up to voters to ask the right questions.  That happened in New York with GOP candidate  Elise Stefanik and hilarity ensued:  

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