When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law 87 years ago on Aug. 14, 1935, he did not intend for it to remain frozen in place. He knew that his landmark social insurance program — enacted during the depths of the Great Depression — would need to be expanded to meet Americans’ needs as times changed. The Social Security Act of 1935, he said, “represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
“FDR obviously couldn’t anticipate exactly what would happen in the future,” says his grandson, James Roosevelt, Jr., vice-chair of the advisory board of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “But he realized that society would change, demographics would change, and he wanted Social Security to be nimble and flexible.”
In fact, during the first 40 years of Social Security, Congress expanded the program no less than 15 times — mostly to broaden coverage and increase benefits. In 1950, Social Security was expanded to cover domestic and agricultural workers. In 1956, Congress added monthly disability benefits, which is why millions of workers with disabilities collect Social Security today. The 1972 amendments provided annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to help beneficiaries keep up with inflation.
Sadly, benefits have not been significantly improved since then. Instead, lawmakers have prioritized keeping the program’s trust fund solvent amidst waves of retiring baby boomers. In 1983, Congress increased the payroll tax and raised the retirement age gradually from 65 to 67, which was, in effect, a benefit cut. It was ‘hard medicine’ that affects retirees four decades later. At the time, Congress had little choice because it waited so long to act that Social Security was just months away from being unable to pay full benefits.
Today, Social Security’s finances once again need strengthening. The program’s trustees project that the combined retirement and disability trust fund will become depleted by 2035. That does not mean Social Security will be “bankrupt,” as some claim. But it is a serious shortfall that Congress must address. At the same time, lawmakers must increase benefits to reflect the realities of making ends meet in 21st century America by bringing more revenue into the system. Many seniors are struggling to get by on monthly Social Security payments averaging about $1,600 — only slightly above the federal poverty line.
It’s no mystery why they are struggling. Even before this year’s record-high inflation, the cost of growing old in America had been steadily rising. The price of everything from health care to housing to prescription drugs has soared beyond many seniors’ means. Cost-of-living adjustments, which may hit a 40-year high next year, still have not adequately kept pace with retirees’ true living expenses. Retirement savings and employer-provided pensions have dwindled, leaving some 40 percent of seniors reliant on Social Security for all or most of their income.
COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on seniors and exacerbated their financial insecurity. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) says the older generations have been struck by “the double-edged sword of pandemic and inflation.” While Social Security retirement, disability and survivor’s benefits have been a lifeline for millions of Americans during the pandemic, benefits must be boosted to help beneficiaries cope with the ongoing crisis.
Conservatives claim that we can’t increase benefits and protect Social Security’s finances. But that’s not true. Larson has introduced legislation, the Social Security 2100 Act, that expands benefits and extends the life of the trust fund. Under Larson’s bill, all beneficiaries would receive a 2 percent boost in benefits — with special increases for widows and widowers, lower-income workers, and retirees over 85 years of age. Future COLAs would be based on an inflation formula — the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly — that more accurately reflects seniors’ spending patterns.
Larson’s bill also would increase the flow of revenue into Social Security. Currently, high earners do not contribute to Social Security on wages exceeding $147,000. Under the Social Security 2100 Act, wages above $400,000 also would be subject to payroll taxes. This is a fair and just reform that helps to compensate for increasing income equality. As Larson says, “We should all pay our fair share so that no one is left behind.”
The Social Security 2100 Act has more than 200 cosponsors in the House. But not a single Republican supports it, and some moderate Democrats still haven’t endorsed the bill. All Democrats should support legislation to expand Social Security for the first time since 1972, reversing what Larson calls “more than 50 years of Congressional neglect.”
It’s not only the right thing to do, but a politically wise move. Polling continually demonstrates that majorities of Americans want the kinds of improvements in Larson’s bill. In a new survey from Data for Progress, 83 percent of likely voters support expanding Social Security, including 84 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents. Seventy-six percent of likely voters across party lines support adjusting the payroll wage cap.
This may be the Democrats’ last opportunity for the foreseeable future to expand Social Security. Republicans have their own plans should they regain power on Capitol Hill, and those plans do not include improving benefits. In fact, the GOP wants to cut and privatize Social Security — basically, to end the program as we know it. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the party’s committee to re-take the Senate, proposed a plan where Social Security would have to be renewed by Congress every five years.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has been pushing a bill, the TRUST Act, which could fast-track legislation to cut Social Security benefits. Just last week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that Social Security spending should be considered “discretionary spending” and subject to routine budget negotiations, even though the program is self-funded by workers.
“The GOP basically says we have to destroy the promise of Social Security in order to save it,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Progressive Caucus in the House and a co-sponsor of Larson’s bill.
Bringing the Social Security 2100 Act to the floor for a vote would show the American people where their elected representatives truly stand on this crucial issue. It would force Republicans to go on the record ‘for or against’ improving benefits — a vote they have managed to shirk for more than half a century.
James Roosevelt, Jr. believes that his grandfather would have wholeheartedly supported this legislation. “I think President Roosevelt surely would agree with updating the program to reflect the realities of this century, just as he supported updating it to include agricultural and domestic workers in the middle of the 20th Century.”
When Congress returns from summer recess, Democrats have a limited window to enact the Social Security 2100 Act before the midterm elections and subsequent lame duck session. “Let’s get this bill to a mark-up, get it to the House floor, and get this done,” says Larson. We in the advocacy community will do everything in our power to make that happen. Voters must do their part, too, by demanding that their members of Congress expand and strengthen Social Security while they still have the chance. After all, there is no better way for us to honor the program’s anniversary than to continue building on the cornerstone President Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress put in place 87 years ago.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.