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Remembering a Crusader for Equal Access to Federal Benefits

The woman President Obama called one of America’s “quiet heroes” passed away September 12th in New York City.  Edith Windsor, 88, was a champion of LGBT rights, whose victory in the landmark United States v. Windsor Supreme Court case allowed married same-sex couples to collect the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples in states that had legalized gay marriage. 

Edith Windsor’s 2013 victory inspired Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow who was denied Social Security survivor’s benefits after the death of her wife, Sara. With the help of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Murphy, a member of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, sued the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2014 for the right to collect survivor’s benefits.  Murphy’s case was later folded into the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that legalized same sex marriage and access to spousal benefits for same-sex couples nationwide in 2015.  

Thanks to Edith Windsor, Kathy Murphy, and millions of supporters across the country, same-sex couples became eligible for the full range of Social Security spousal benefits, including retirement, survivor, death and disability protections. This led to the development of a National Committee sponsored community outreach and education initiative called Know Your Rights which helped thousands of LGBT couples and families understand their Social Security benefits.  

Edith Windsor lived with her partner, Thea Spyer, for 40 years, finally getting married in Toronto in 2007. (Their home state of New York didn’t legalize same-sex marriage until 2011).  Windsor was denied an estate tax exemption for married couples after Spyer died, and sued the federal government for a tax refund, leading to the landmark Windsor decision.  

The diminutive Windsor, a retired computer programmer for IBM, never sought the spotlight but embraced her role as a well-known LGBT activist. 

The National Committee celebrates Windsor’s life and her landmark achievements.  She was that ‘ordinary person’ caught up in extraordinary circumstances who bravely stepped forward for the cause of equality, the “quiet hero” who gave voice to couples asking only the same benefits as everyone else.

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Social Security and Medicare are Financially Sound, Not “Going Bankrupt,” says Trustees Report

The 2017 OASDI Trustees Report confirms that the Social Security Trust fund is stable and healthy for now, but faces challenges in the future if corrective action is not taken.  The most important figures remain consistent with last year’s report:  The combined OASDI (Old-age, Survivor, and Disability Insurance) trust funds will remain fully solvent until 2034, after which Social Security can pay 77% of benefits if there are no changes to the program. The Trustees report there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.  

This reassuring report will not stop Social Security’s opponents from seeing the glass half-empty and claiming that the program is in dire financial trouble.  Expect to hear more false cries about Social Security (and Medicare) going “bankrupt” in the coming months. 

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age.  We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans.” - Max Richtman, NCPSSM president and CEO

The National Committee endorses bills introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others, which keep the Social Security trust fund solvent while boosting benefits and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  The bills achieve this mainly by phasing out the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share into Social Security.

Forty percent of seniors (and 90% of unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income.  The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2% will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. 

The news media touted the 2.2% bump for 2018 as “the largest in several years.” While it’s true that next year’s COLA is far superior to this year’s 0.3% increase, it is still woefully inadequate.  What the media don’t always explain is that a 2.2% increase translates into an extra $28 per month – hardly a fortune for seniors struggling to meet rising expenses on fixed incomes. A single co-pay for a prescription or a trip in a wheelchair van could easily gobble up $28, if not more.

Currently, Social Security cost of living increases are pegged to the Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners or CPI-W.  This index does not reflect seniors’ true expenses.  Older Americans pay a disproportionate share of their limited incomes for items like housing and medical care compared to younger wage earners.  The National Committee advocates the adoption of the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), which tracks rising costs for the goods and services seniors actually spend their money on.  The leading categories are Housing, Transportation, Food and Medical Care.  As the National Committee’s Webster Phillips told CBS Radio News: 

“The consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E), which is focused on the spending patterns of seniors, is a better measure of inflation as it affects older people’s consumption patterns.” – Webster Phillips, NCPSSM Senior Policy Analyst, 7/13/17

On Medicare, the Trustees report shows that the Part A Trust Fund will be able to pay full benefits until 2029, and 88% thereafter if nothing is done to bolster the system’s finances.  Depending on what the final version looks like, the Republican healthcare plan could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years. The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare – which Speaker Ryan and the House Republicans have promised to undertake during the budget resolution process for 2018.

Instead of privatization, the National Committee champions innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health.

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Massachusetts Congressman is an Unassuming, Unrelenting Champion of Social Security

This morning National Committee President Max Richtman interviewed a real fighter for Social Security and Medicare on Facebook Live from Capitol Hill – Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA-1). 

The Congressman, who the Boston Globe called “an unassuming everyday guy from Western Massachusetts,” has a unique vantage point on seniors’ issues.  He is the ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees (among other things) Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and taxes.  He assumed the post just before President Trump arrived in Washington, and has become a key point person against a Republican assault on these programs.

Neal is a true believer in Social Security, partly because he grew up with it.  He and his sisters were raised by an aunt in Springfield, MA after their parents died, and relied on Social Security survivors’ benefits to make ends meet and remain under one roof.  “Social Security allowed us to live as a family, and I’ve never forgotten that,” Neal told Max Richtman.

The Congressman is determined that Social Security be preserved for future generations – without benefit cuts – as a singular form of retirement insurance.  “You can outlive an annuity.  You cannot outlive Social Security,” he said on Facebook Live.  “That’s the guarantee.  That’s the genius of Mr. Roosevelt’s program.”  (Social Security was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of National Committee founder James Roosevelt, Sr.)

Social Security, Neal says, gives American families a modicum of financial predictability for their senior years.  He told the Globe that Social Security “is the reason Mom and Dad aren’t living in your attic.”

Neal is co-sponsoring Connecticut Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act – one of the Democrats’ resounding replies to Republican schemes to shrink the program.  Larson’s bill keeps Social Security solvent for decades without cutting benefits.  In fact, The Social Security 2100 Act modestly increases benefits.  Rep. Neal admits that the bill probably won’t go very far while Republicans control Congress.  But he says the legislation “invites fresh thinking about how to encourage growth in Social Security.”

Meanwhile, the Congressman vehemently opposes a bill from House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) that would do the opposite of Larson’s – reducing cost-of-living adjustments, raising the retirement age to 69 and cutting the benefit-computation formula. All of this, Neal says, would amount to a 30% cut in benefits for middle-class retirees.

Neal shoots down conservative arguments that Americans’ increasing longevity justifies raising the retirement age.  Without Social Security, nearly half of our nation’s seniors would live in poverty – all the more reason, Neal says, not to pull the rug from under retirees by delaying eligibility for benefits.  “We applaud each other regularly for increases in life expectancy in America,” says Neal.  “But all that means is that we have to reinforce the guarantees that Social Security provides.”

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Myths about Mental Illness and Social Security Disability Insurance Debunked

In order to justify its $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the Trump administration and its allies have had to propagate several myths.  The most insidious one is that many SSDI recipients are not truly worthy of benefits.  They have suggested that mental illness is among the more dubious qualifications for SSDI.  Senator Rand Paul famously remarked that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.” Former Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling sums it up quite succinctly in The Atlantic:

 

The Administration is already deploying selective—and often deceptive—facts to stigmatize and caricature both the Social Security Disability Insurance program and its recipients. This sort of framing justifies using Social Security as a piggy bank to raid in order to help offset tax cuts for top-earning Americans. – Gene Sperling, 5/23/17

 

These convenient myths can be effective in undermining public support for SSDI, but they are dangerous for the millions of Americans with mental disorders who depend on federal disability benefits to prevent them from sinking into abject poverty.  Here are the facts: 

 

Nearly 25% of the nation’s 8 million SSDI recipients have a mental impairment as their primary diagnosis – or qualification – for benefits. They may suffer from a variety of disorders, including severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and intellectual impairment, which make it impossible for them to work or hold a job.  Many of those deemed eligible for SSDI benefits because of mental disorders also suffer from related physical disabilities.  The majority of these beneficiaries are over 50 years of age.  These are some of the vulnerable people the Trump administration is targeting with budget cuts – beneficiaries who struggle to make ends meet on an average $1172 per month from SSDI, just above the federal poverty line.  As Think Progress reports, for eight in ten beneficiaries, SSDI is their main or sole source of income. 

 

Why don’t these SSDI recipients simply work for a living, as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and other administration apologists insinuate that they should?  Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Director of Government Affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), explains why it’s so difficult for people with severe mental impairments to hold a job:  

 

“The symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult to concentrate on tasks, to routinely interact with customers and put on a friendly face, or handle changes in the workplace.  Like people with physical disabilities, those struggling with mental disorders may need to miss an excessive amount of work for doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, or because of side effects from medications.”  - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Stacy recalls two clients from a previous job assisting SSDI claimants whose stories starkly illustrate why it’s so difficult for the mentally impaired to sustain paying work.  One was a woman who suffered from PTSD due to domestic abuse.  After her husband tried to burn down their house, she experienced debilitating flashbacks and panic attacks that resembled seizures, and could barely leave home.  No longer to able to work, she had to discontinue her job in the fast food industry and applied for SSDI.  “She was awarded benefits at the time she needed them, which enabled her to keep a roof over head and food on the table while seeking treatment,” Cloyd explains.

 

The second client was a man in his 60s who had an intellectual impairment (formerly known as “mental retardation”) who for several years worked as a custodian through a special employment program and paid into Social Security.  He was later forced to give up the custodial work due to a variety of ailments.  Unable to find alternate employment because of his intellectual impairment, he applied for – and received – SSDI benefits.  It’s hard to imagine this older man being able to meet his basic living expenses without a job and without SSDI. 

 

While some fiscal conservatives and others perpetuate the myth that people on SSDI are simply lazy and scamming the system in order to avoid working, Cloyd insists that the opposite is true.

 

“If given a choice between dealing with the pain they suffer – mentally or physically – and collecting SSDI benefits… or being free of this pain and working for a living, I can tell you that they all would choose to work.” - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Of course, having a severe mental or physical impairment is no guarantee of receiving SSDI benefits. The United States has one of the strictest federal disability standards in the world (only South Korea is more stringent).  Only one in four SSDI applicants is actually approved for benefits.  Wait times for approvals and appeals can be anywhere from months to years. In case anyone doubts the severity of beneficiaries’ conditions, one in six men on SSDI die within 5 years of approval for benefits; for women, the figure is one in seven.

 

Unfortunately, the cold facts do not deter the administration’s propagandists from insisting that many SSDI beneficiaries are somehow undeserving of help – even though they must have worked and paid into Social Security for five of the past ten years before applying.  The ARC advocacy organization estimates that 946,000 beneficiaries could be booted off SSDI if the Trump budget cuts are enacted:  that’s nearly one million mentally and physically impaired Americans deprived of minimal benefits to “keep a roof above their heads and food on the table” in order to give the wealthy and big corporations a massive tax cut. Capitol Hill watchers say the President’s budget is simply a “messaging document” with little chance of passage, in which case we say it is a cruel and frightening message to send some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.  

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For more on mental impairments and Social Security Disability Insurance, watch this week's "Behind The Headlines" on Facebook Live. 

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Trump Budget Shatters President's Promise on Social Security, Medicaid

The President’s promise not to touch Social Security was officially revealed to be a sham today.  Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  Some media outlets have let the President off the hook by saying the budget does not cut Social Security benefits.  This headline from Fox Business News is typical, even in the mainstream media:

Trump’s Budget Slashes Spending, Leaves Social Security & Medicare Untouched – Fox Business News, 5/22/17


A CNN Money correspondent just perpetuated the administration’s misleading spin, telling Wolf Blitzer this afternoon that Trump’s budget “doesn’t touch Social Security.”   

Other media outlets are hedging by saying the Trump budget doesn’t cut “core” Social Security benefits – whatever that means.  Social Security Disability Insurance is a crucial and inseparable part of Social Security. Period.  No amount of parsing can cleave the two.  When you cut a program, you hurt people – whether the cuts affect “core” benefits or not.

In this case, the millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on SSDI for basic income security are the ones who stand to be hurt.  Though SSDI helps younger Americans, too, most of its beneficiaries are 55 or over – meaning any cuts to the program will hit older Americans particularly hard.   The human consequences do not seem to disturb the President’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, as is obvious from this exchange with a reporter in the White House press room:


Reporter:  Will any of those individuals who receive SSDI receive less from this budget?

Mulvaney:  I hope so.

Mulvaney clarified that he thought the program has been enrolling too many people and called for cuts in the number of enrollees, even though that number has been shrinking.  Earlier this year, the Budget Director wondered aloud on television why SSDI is considered part of Social Security, despite the fact that it unequivocally is – and has been – since 1956.  SSDI is funded by workers’ Social Security payroll tax contributions – just like retirement benefits.   Qualifying disability beneficiaries must meet certain work history requirements, same as they do for retirement benefits.  When SSDI recipients reach retirement age, they transition seamlessly into the Social Security retirement program.  In no way is SSDI separable from Social Security.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that the Trump budget contains $72 billion in cuts to federal disability programs — primarily Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provides income assistance to poor seniors and people with disabilities.  The budget does not contain hard details of exactly how SSDI will be cut, but CBPP offers this insight:

$48 billion would come from a vague proposal to “test new approaches to increase labor force participation.”  But the Social Security Administration has undertaken many demonstration projects over the years to test new ways to encourage beneficiaries to return to work, and they have consistently shown limited results or proved not cost-effective. The budget also contains other proposals that would cut Social Security benefits for disabled workers and SSI benefits for households with more than one disabled family member.  – Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Cutting benefits for Americans with disabilities fits right in with the cruel theme running through the President’s entire budget, which decimates programs for society’s most vulnerable citizens in order to give the rich and big corporations a massive tax cut.  In addition to SSDI, the Trump budget guts Medicaid, and cuts funding for other programs benefitting seniors including Meals on Wheels, home heating assistance, and community service employment.  

Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly vowed not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The drastic cuts to SSDI and Medicaid – along with the weakening of Medicare’s solvency in the Republicans’ healthcare legislation – makes the President zero for three on these promises.   Knowing that he cannot be trusted to protect seniors, advocates and everyday Americans must work to defeat the Trump budget in Congress – and make sure it never reaches his desk.

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