By Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO
Momentum continues to build inside and outside the halls of Congress to reverse course on the single-minded quest to cut Social Security benefits which has dominated our political discourse for years. Not surprisingly, commentators who bought into the billion dollar Wall Street campaign to convince America we can’t afford a strong Social Security system are distressed at this turn of events. Apocalyptic screeds with headlines like “Increasing Social Security Benefits Would Wreck Retirement Security” portray efforts to boost these earned benefits as partisan pandering. They conveniently ignore the fact that legislation increasing benefits would also extend Social Security’s long-term solvency by decades. The American people have never bought into the false choice that the only way to “save Social Security” is to slash benefits. Congress now has the opportunity to plot a course that addresses our looming retirement crisis while also strengthening Social Security’s long-term finances.
There’s no doubt that, for years now, the steady drumbeat for cutting Social Security benefits has been so deafening as to drown out any discussion about what those cuts would actually mean for millions of Americans. According to the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a sizable percentage of workers report they have virtually no savings and investments. More than a third (36 percent) of retired civilian workers say they have less than $1,000 (up from 28 percent in 2013). A quarter of workers and 17 percent of retirees indicate that their current level of debt is higher than it was five years ago. Social Security remains the only stable source of income for many families who are still rebuilding after our nation’s recent brush with economic collapse. Yet rather than address this retirement crisis head-on, we have wasted years of political energy focused on cutting benefits to pay down the deficit rather than strengthening the Social Security program — until now.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) would change the benefit calculation formula the Social Security Administration uses, so that benefits would gradually increase by approximately $70 per month. The Strengthening Social Security Act would also change the way the Social Security Administration calculates the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), ensuring that benefits more accurately reflect the increasing costs facing seniors today. Finally, this legislation would phase out the current payroll tax cap so that all Americans contribute to Social Security taxes fairly. In 2014, workers who earn less than $117,000 contribute 6.2 percent of their wages in Social Security payroll taxes. Workers who earned above $117,000 pay no Social Security payroll taxes above that level, meaning the effective tax rate for Social Security actually decreases for America’s higher income workers. In fact, workers who earn over a $1 million per year only pay Social Security tax on one-tenth or less of their earnings which creates a gaping loophole for millionaires. The “Strengthen Social Security Act of 2013” gets rid of this loophole, boosts benefits, and would extend the solvency of Social Security by almost two additional decades, until 2049.
The latest survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance shows large majorities of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, agree on ways to strengthen Social Security, without cutting benefits. Of those polled, 74 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats agree that “it is critical to preserve Social Security even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by working Americans.” Simply put, the American people are willing to pay more for Social Security. They understand the growing impact these benefits have on individual lives and on our larger economy.
Families spend $816 billion in Social Security benefits nationwide each year. When 57 million Americans use the purchasing power of those modest benefits, they are supporting local businesses and jobs, communities and state economies with billions of dollars they simply wouldn’t have without Social Security. Boosting Social Security now makes sense not only for millions of Americans and their families but also for our economic recovery. The waning anti-Social Security lobby will try to stop our progress, but the American people understand that boosting benefits is the right thing to do and now is the right time to do it, for millions of middle-class families and our nation’s economic recovery.