News that Social Security and Medicare might finally be topics discussed in the last Presidential debate on Wednesday night should be welcome news for those of us who’ve worked hard all year to try and get Presidential candidates to talk specifics about their plans for the nation’s most important government programs.  It should be…but unfortunately, it’s not.

Why?  Because, debate moderator Chris Wallace says “entitlements” will be discussed as part of a debt discussion.  This framing follows the talking points crafted by the billion dollar Wall Street/corporate funded anti-Social Security and Medicare lobby that’s worked for decades to cut benefits.  Framing benefits cuts as a way to “save” Social Security and Medicare while reducing the debt has long been the poll-tested language used to sell the American people on middle-class benefit cuts to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy:

“The push for benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of deficit reduction has always been the goal of the billion dollar corporate and Wall Street backed crisis campaign driving Washington’s deficit hysteria. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” was a strategic political move capitalizing on deficits as a way to force middle-class benefit cuts on Americans already shell-shocked in the Great Recession.  Once deficits reduced (without the drastic cuts to benefits that corporate lobbyists assured us must happen), the anti-“entitlement” lobby lost its inside-the-Beltway political momentum.”…Entitled to Know

Lumping Social Security and Medicare together and calling them “entitlements” is also telling. These are earned benefits, not entitlements, which American workers have contributed to throughout their working lives. Conservatives have long used the word “entitlements” to make those earned benefits seem like welfare. This political strategy also ignores the fact that Social Security and Medicare are unique programs, providing different services to a diverse group of Americans.  These programs face very distinctive challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for America’s most important healthcare program (Medicare) and retirement security program (Social Security).  However, this is exactly the way next week’s debate has framed the conversation. 

As we’ve said before,

“There is an important Social Security and Medicare conversation to be had.  We must find long-term solvency solutions that also address our nation’s retirement and health security crisis.  Obamacare went a long way toward improving the health care picture but more work remains to be done.  Retirement USA reports the gap between what Americans need to retire and what they actually have is $7.7 trillion. In fact, about half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings and a third of current workers aged 55 to 64 are likely to be poor or near-poor in retirement. Unfortunately, the median retirement account balance is a puny $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households. Vanguard reports that 401K balances, for those who do have them, fell a median of 11% last year.  Social Security remains the only stable retirement income for many Americans.”

While conservative fiscal hawks, including many Fox news commentators, see Social Security as solely a source of “investment-draining and economy-staling uncertainty,” the truth is, Social Security is a hugely stabilizing force for the economy.  A new report from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation shows that, in 2014 alone, Social Security delivered a $1.6 trillion fiscal boost nationwide as benefits were spent and cycled through the economy.  Is there any chance that Social Security’s vital contribution to our economy will come up in next week’s debate?  Nah.

There is a way to have the conversation that needs to be had on the future of Social Security and Medicare and it starts with one simple question:

 “What are your specific plans to ensure Social Security and Medicare’s long-term solvency and improve benefits?”

The final Presidential debate is at 9 p.m. (Eastern Time) on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Each of the subjects will get a 15-minute time segment.