When Democratic presidential contenders debate in Charleston on Tuesday, they should be given an opportunity to state their positions on the future of Social Security. During the nine previous primary debates, moderators did not ask a single question on this crucial program that provides basic financial security to 64 million people, including nearly 1.2 million in South Carolina. Working and retired residents will depend on the next president to safeguard Social Security for the future, to protect against benefit cuts and make necessary expansions to the program.
Nationally, 1 in 5 beneficiaries relies on Social Security for at least 90% of their income. The average annual Social Security benefit in South Carolina is about $17,000 per year, only a few thousand dollars above the federal poverty line. The state’s seniors need every penny of their monthly benefit checks.
Social Security is especially important to South Carolina’s African American residents, who tend to have lower earnings and less pension coverage than white residents. Social Security provides many elderly African Americans with their sole or primary source of income in retirement. In fact, if they did not receive their earned benefits, 53% of African American seniors would live in poverty.
Social Security not only keeps seniors out of poverty, it provides an economic stimulus to communities across the country. In 2018, Social Security benefits pumped $18 billion into South Carolina’s economy. That puts extra money into the pockets of local businesses, employees and citizens of all ages.
Unfortunately, some in the news media have bought into the narrative that “no one in Washington wants to talk about Social Security” because it is a politically sensitive issue. Perhaps that’s one reason why moderators haven’t asked the question during debates. This narrative holds that neither party is willing to address Social Security’s long-term future. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many conservatives continue to claim that “entitlements” must be “reformed” (code for cut and privatized). Never mind that Social Security is an earned benefit, not an “entitlement.” Some fiscal hawks have even argued that Social Security, a self-funded program, needs to be cut to pay for the deficit-swelling Trump/GOP tax package.
Meanwhile, we enthusiastically support legislation from Rep. John Larson, D-Connecticut, to keep Social Security financially healthy for the rest of the century while boosting benefits and increasing cost-of-living adjustments, mostly by asking the wealthiest to contribute their fair share of payroll taxes. (More than 165 million Americans pay into Social Security, but contributions are capped at $137,700 in annual wages.)
With the power of millions of American seniors behind us, we have fought for decades to protect Social Security. We have defended the program against privatization. We held the line against cuts to Social Security during the fiscal cliff negotiations of 2012. We opposed adopting the Chained CPI (a more miserly formula for calculating seniors’ cost-of-living adjustments). Today, we support legislation to increase benefits and fortify Social Security’s finances.
As President Franklin Roosevelt made clear when he signed Social Security into law, the program is a “cornerstone in a structure … which is by no means complete.” He understood that the program would need to be expanded over time to continue protecting seniors’ financial security. Presidential contenders in the party of Franklin Roosevelt must be asked about Social Security’s future on the debate stage. Seniors in South Carolina and the rest of the country deserve to hear their answers.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.