By Max Richtman

January 10, 2018

With the scribbled ink on last month’s GOP tax legislation barely dry, Sen. Marco Rubio and House Speaker Paul Ryan are promising to target Americans’ earned benefits this year. “We need to generate economic growth which generates revenue, while reducing spending. That will mean instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future,” Rubio told an interviewer. Of course, by “structural changes,” he really means cutting benefits to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy and profitable corporations.

These remarks are consistent with what Rubio has advocated since well before his failed 2016 presidential bid. In a 2014 speech to the National Press Club, he proposed raising the Social Security retirement age (which is itself a massive benefit cut) and endorsed Speaker Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a voucher program.


Of course, Rubio and Ryan have been using this rationale for years. The difference now is that their party finally has the power to realize long-held dreams of gutting programs that Americans have paid into for their entire working lives. Meanwhile, President Trump is not the firewall against changes to Social Security and Medicare that he promised to be during the campaign.

In opposing these attempts to undermine Social Security and Medicare, it’s important for us to continue to correct a few of Rubio and Ryan’s mendacious fairy tales about these programs:

“Social Security and Medicare are the ‘major drivers’ of the debt”

This is a canard budget hawks often use to attack earned benefits. The truth is that Social Security and Medicare Part A are self-funded through workers’ payroll contributions. They do not contribute a penny to the debt. However, one of the biggest drivers of the debt moving forward will be the Trump/GOP tax cut.

“The only way to keep these programs solvent is to privatize and cut benefits”

Without action from Congress to shore up their finances, Social Security and Medicare Part A will not be able to pay full benefits after 2034 and 2029 respectively. Budget hardliners insist that the only way to keep these programs solvent is to privatize them and cut benefits. In truth, there are modest and manageable measures that Congress could implement to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare for most of the rest of this century — while modestly expanding benefits.

“The government should get out of the health care business”

As part of his justification for gutting Medicare, Speaker Ryan claims that the government cannot deliver health care as efficiently as the private sector. This flies in the face of fact. Medicare’s administrative costs are only 2 percent of its operating budget. The average overhead for private insurers is closer to 20 percent.

“These changes will only affect future seniors”

Rubio and Ryan like to say that their plans to gut earned benefits won’t impact current seniors, only people their age or younger. This proposition is disingenuous in two major ways. Future retirees will be no better able to save for retirement or withstand benefit cuts than today’s seniors, as working families’ incomes are forecast to remain stagnant for the foreseeable future. Secondly, today’s seniors aren’t likely to support reductions in earned benefits for younger generations because they actually care about their children’s — and grandchildren’s — financial and health security.

As Republicans try their hardest to undo the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society, it is wise to remember why Social Security and Medicare were enacted in the first place. Too many seniors were living in poverty, and people over 65 either couldn’t find — or couldn’t afford — health insurance. These programs are just as necessary today as they were at the time of their creation. Cutting and privatizing them may be Rubio and Ryan’s dream, but it would be a nightmare for working Americans.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization which promotes the financial security, health, and well-being of current and future generations of maturing Americans. He is former staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

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