Title: Former RFK Sr. Aide & Retirement Security Expert Bill Arnone Talks Social Security – Part 1
Guest: Bill Arnone, CEO, National Academy of Social Insurance 
Release Date:  6/24/24


ANNOUNCER:  It’s You Earned This, the Social Security and Medicare podcast, brought to you by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and now your host, Walter Gottlieb.

WALTER:  Sometimes the word expert is tossed around a little too liberally, but our guest on the podcast today is a true expert on seniors’ retirement income and especially Social Security. He is outgoing CEO of the National Academy of Social Insurance, otherwise known as NASI. He was an aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. in the 1960s, not to be confused with RFK Jr., who is running for president in 2024. Our special guest for this two-part episode is policy expert, thought leader, and author Bill Arnone.  We’ll chat about how he got involved in seniors’ issues 50 years ago and why it’s so important for younger adults to know about Social Security today. Good afternoon, Bill, and thanks for joining us in the studio today.

BILL ARNONE:  Walter, thank you. It’s great to be with you.

WALTER:  Appreciate that. So I do want to back up and ask you, how did you become involved in the issue of Social Security in the first place and become such a passionate advocate for seniors’ retirement security?

BILL ARNONE:  Well, the first thing I can tell you is it wasn’t planned, and as we often tell interns who come to our academy, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

WALTER:  Right.

BILL ARNONE:  Life does not work that way. But I was, I graduated from law school, and I was involved in the criminal justice system. And my girlfriend at the time said, “This is not a path to a good career, criminal justice. I saw an ad to run a senior citizen center in the Bronx. Humor me and apply for it.” And I said, “Senior citizens? I mean, I don’t know the first thing other than grandma and grandpa.” I applied, and I got the job. So I ran one of the largest senior centers in New York City. And it was an eye-opener. These were mostly women, widows, who had been considered middle class most of their lives. And in retirement, they were poor. Why? They were trying to live just on Social Security. So firsthand experience, I said, okay, this is not a successful, sustainable way to achieve retirement security. And then I joined the New York City Office for the Aging. I got more immersed in policy. So I went from firsthand serving older people to getting involved in policy, because I realized that we needed to make some big changes.

WALTER:  And then how did you become more formally involved in retirement security advocacy?

BILL ARNONE:  When I went to the Department for the Aging, I got more immersed in policy. And I was brought to the attention of a legendary man, Merton Bernstein. Mert was a principal consultant to the Greenspan Commission in 1983. And Mert said:  Why don’t you watch Social Security policy get made in real time? So I was able to observe all the Greenspan Commission public meetings in 1983. I wrote up a paper on it. And I was hooked. I found Social Security to be an incredibly complicated program with challenges back then. And here’s an attempt to solve them through a gathering of experts chaired by Alan Greenspan. Fascinating. And I got hooked. This is for me, this is the policy area I want to focus on in my career.

WALTER:  And were you the founder of NASI? And how long ago was that? And what was the mission of the National Academy of Social Insurance?

BILL ARNONE:  Three years after the Greenspan Commission, Robert Ball, who was one of the key figures in the Greenspan Commission, said, “We have a problem.” This big generation, the Boomer generation of which I’m one, they don’t understand this program. And if generations don’t understand it, it’ll wither away. And Mert found me and said,  “Would you like to be part of this?” And I came here in 1986 and was one of the founding board members. So we’ll be coming up to the Academy’s 40th anniversary. Its mission was simple. Improve public understanding of why we have programs like Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Workers’ Comp. What’s behind them? What’s their rationale? And what does each generation have to do to make sure these programs don’t go away? And that was the challenge.

WALTER:  And what would you say are some of the highlights or the things that you’re most proud of during your time overseeing NASI?

BILL ARNONE:  And my time is in two phases. I started out as the chair of the board in 2013, and three years later, they asked if I would run it as the chief executive. So I’ve had a 10-year run, and it’s a jewel of an organization. We’re nonpartisan. We don’t lobby. We don’t advocate. We issue very evidence-based reports. We hope to feed advocates useful information so they can plan and be more effective. And it’s been a wonderful experience for me. And we’ve been through tough times. COVID was a real challenge. I can say it was an ordeal being the CEO of a nonprofit during COVID. A lot of nonprofits are not here.

WALTER:  I think if you asked our CEO, Max Richtman, he would agree quite heartily with that.

BILL ARNONE:  Yes, but we made it, and I think the future looks great. And never have we needed an organization like the Academy more than now because these programs are under attack, and they’ve always been under attack, but the attack seems to be increasing. It’s more sophisticated with lots of money behind it. So we’re in for a, I don’t like to overuse the word existential crisis, but I think it is for social insurance in particular.

WALTER:  And let’s talk about your successor. Your successor will be Rebecca Vallas, formerly of the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.

BILL ARNONE:  Correct.

WALTER:  How was she chosen? And you seem to feel very optimistic about her taking over.

BILL ARNONE:  Optimistic is an understatement. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled and relieved. She’s a gem. She’s got the compassion, the smarts. She’s a legal aid, former legal aid attorney, tremendous network of support, and the level of enthusiasm that we need. And I call this a ‘genderational’ transition.

WALTER:  ‘Genderational.’

BILL ARNONE:  Generational and gender, because I think it’s time that a woman lead the academy and a member of her generation. So I think this is the key to the future. We have to identify with younger people. We Boomers have had our chance. A lot of the academy members are Boomers, but our newer members are younger. And I think the academy needs to resonate with them much more effectively. She’s the perfect person to do this.

WALTER:  What do you think about the attempt by the right, which is not new, goes back at least 40 years, to divide the generations in order to undermine Social Security?

BILL ARNONE:  It’s been a well thought through strategy. They have sown doubt. Will it be there? Will it be a big cut? They keep harping on in 10 years, everyone’s going to take a 20% reduction. But it was well financed and it has taken effect. A lot of younger people do have this question in their minds. It was a good program for mom and dad, but will it be there for me? My answer is it’s there for you now. Yeah, retirement may be in the distance, but disability protection, God forbid, life insurance protection, people don’t understand it’s a package. It’s pensions plus. Little by little, I think people are starting to see it. We bring interns into the academy every summer and they’re the future leaders. And one of the things I’m proudest of is our commitment to leadership development. We’ve had 500 interns in the history of the academy. They’re the future leaders of public policy. So we’ve done, I think, a job that fulfilled Bob Ball’s vision. He had two reasons for the academy: a network of current Social Security experts and a magnet for future. And the magnet function is the one I’m really happy about, attracting people to the public policy arena in general and to Social Security policy in particular.

WALTER:  Amen. And we are certainly focused for the long term on trying to get that message out to younger generations that Social Security will be there for you and don’t believe the hype. And it is a good deal for you. And the average Millennial will need about a million in lifetime Social Security benefits and is on track to receive that.

BILL ARNONE:  And you’re right that more than any other generation, Millennials, Generation Z, they don’t have what Social Security was based on, the notion that you’ll have a pension and you’ll have your own savings. But I also add:  It’ll be there if you fight for it. It doesn’t come naturally. It was born in political struggle. You look at the history of Social Security, it was born in global revolutionary times. In fact, Roosevelt said we need social insurance, not just for the beneficiaries, but for the country’s stability. So he was way ahead of his time. If conservatives thought about this the right way, they would realize it’s a conservative program. It preserved capitalism. You look at it.

WALTER:  As, you could argue, did the entire New Deal. Preserve capitalism, but with a liberal, progressive vision. You used to be affiliated with the Employee Benefit Research Institute, is that correct?

BILL ARNONE:  I served on their board of trustees, yes.

WALTER:  I made some videos for them in the 90s, and I remember we did a graphic of this three-legged stool. And the three legs of the retirement security stool were: Social Security, Retirement Savings, and Employer Provided Pensions. What happened to that stool, Man?

BILL ARNONE:  I was never a fan of that image. First of all, have you ever tried to sit on that stool? Usually it’s only in a bar, right?

WALTER:  Maybe put your feet up on one. Yeah.

BILL ARNONE:  I always thought it was not an apt image. And today it is totally irrelevant because the fine benefit pension plans are gone, and 401K plans have not delivered on the promise. So three-legged stool, it’s really a pogo stick for most people. It’s one source, Social Security, and it has, you know, it’s up and down because you just never know politically what’s going to happen to it. So we have really created a tremendous source of instability for generations that need to finance a retirement that will probably last longer than their parents and grandparents with life expectancy. Although lately it’s gone down, but you feel for future generations it will probably get back to going up.

WALTER:  I love the pogo stick metaphor, and maybe we can use that in social media. Our engineer who doubles as our social media manager, can probably make a pogo stick graphic. One-legged stool.

BILL ARNONE:  If you get it, get it on TikTok.

WALTER:  Get it on TikTok, where everyone gets their news.

BILL ARNONE:  Believe me, I start my mornings at breakfast like this. And there’s a member of our academy, Catherine Edwards, who has a series of Social Security TikToks. They’re brilliant. She just talks to her generation. She’s young and just uses that as a tool. You should check it out. It’s really…

WALTER:  Make a note, Shahab, to follow her, please. And have her on the show. I’m writing that down.

BILL ARNONE:  She’s a great communicator.

WALTER:  And she’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m booked until 2027.’

BILL ARNONE:  No, no, no. She’ll do it.

WALTER:  That’s cool. But let’s go back to the stool for a minute. Even if it’s an inapt image, isn’t the point that employer-provided pensions are basically a thing of the past? They were replaced with 401ks, which are subject to market volatility. All the risk is borne by the future retiree. And then the retirement savings, as you mentioned, that’s a tough sled now with income inequality, inflation, rising housing costs, etc. So, in other words, I’m just wondering whether you agree with the premise that whether you like the stool image or not, two of those legs are pretty much gone.

BILL ARNONE:  Which means that what’s left has to do more.  Social Security. And even today, politicians go, no cuts. No cuts. How about expand? I mean, really, think about the gap it’s got to fill. And for that, millennials, 80 million Millennials, Generation Z, I don’t know what the final number is on Generation Z. They will need Social Security more than their parents.

WALTER:  And maybe more than Millennials even. Who knows? We’ll have to look on TikTok because that’s where Gen Z is. Bill, we have so much more to talk about and we’re out of time for this episode. Could I ask you to come back next time and finish up?

BILL ARNONE:  Well, it will be my pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you about this.

WALTER:  So we’ll be back next week with part two of our interview with Bill Arnone. In the meantime, if you’d like more great content, subscribe to our blog, Entitled to Know, at Entitledtoknow.org. You can also become a member of the National Committee today by visiting ncpssm.org. That’s ncpssm.org. Our engineer is Rockin’ Shahab Shokouhi. And our editor and the composer of our theme music is ‘Simon Says’ Laslo Janssen. Catch you next time on You Earned This!