Elder Poverty and a GOP Sucker Punch – NOW Will Democrats Pledge to Defend Social Security

Richard Eskow

Here are three things to consider:

Nearly one American in six over the age of 65 lives in poverty. A newly progressivized Barack Obama is rocking the populist bandwagon from Osawatomie to the Oval Office. And the Republicans have started attacking Democrats on Social Security – from the left.

This would be a good time for the President and other ‘centrist’ Democrats to offer the country a firm pledge not to cut Social Security benefits in any way, now or in the future.

Seniors in Poverty

Research teams working with the U.S. Census Bureau recently improved the government’s approach to tracking poverty. They began including income from government programs – a request made by conservatives, but not an unreasonable one – adjusting for regional cost differences, and including medical care and other items that often get overlooked into their calculations.

The revised figures showed that poverty in this country is greater than previously believed. And they showed that nearly twice as many Americans over 65 live in poverty than earlier figures had suggested – more than 15%, rather than the previously reported figure of 9%.

Seniors are especially hard-hit by medical costs, despite the existence of Medicare. A study conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College showed that the average couple reaching age 65 in 2009 could expect to pay nearly $197,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Medical care costs are rising much faster than general inflation. So are other costs, like transportation, that affect seniors and the disabled, Social Security’s biggest pools of beneficiaries. That means elder poverty figures are likely to keep rising as these costs soar – and as the current cost of living adjustment for Social Security lags behind their actual living expenses.

The Cut of a Thousand Deaths

So why would so many Democrats, from Barack Obama to Dick Durbin, push a Social Security benefit reduction that would lower that cost of living adjustment even more? The ” chained-CPI” is a terrible idea, a back-door cut to Social Security that would be both economically tragic for seniors and politically disastrous for anyone who supported it.

Social Security Works calculated that under the chained-CPI “the average earner at age 45 who begins receiving disability benefits would get a $333 benefit cut at age 55, and a nearly $700 cut by age 65. By age 75 … that person faces a loss of over $1,000, an 8.1 percent cut.” The President said of this change, “Most folks would hardly notice.”

(You can get a sense of how much you’d lose under this proposal here, and then decide whether you’d notice.)

Some of these Dems have also suggested raising the retirement age even further than it’s scheduled to be raised. That’s a benefit cut, too.

Democratic Benefit Cutters

Daniel Marans has been keeping score. He tracked the Democratic Social Security benefit-cutting action that began with the presidentially-appointed Deficit Commission,and picked up speed when Co-Chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles proposed benefit cuts of up to 41.5%. Then Democratic Senator Dick Durbin backed those cuts, 14 Democratic Senators signed a letter backing Simpson and Bowles, and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor demanded that Social Security reductions be “on the table” in deficit talks- even though Social Security is forbidden by law from contributing to the deficit.

No wonder Democrats lost nearly all of the 28-point polling advantage on Social Security they enjoyed in late 2006. These maneuvers created a situation where, at the beginning of this year, Obama was less trusted than Bush on this hot-button issue!

To be sure, there have been stalwart defenders of Social Security among the Democrats. Prominent among them are Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and the members of the House Progressive Caucus. They’ve emphatically rejected Social Security cuts of any kind, including these proposals. (Sen. Bernie Sanders is a champion of Social Security – but he’s not a Democrat.)

Tinkering

Now the same Democrats who tried to cut Social Security are offering a stimulus tax break in the form of a highly flawed payroll tax ‘holiday’ that undermines the best arguments for protecting Social Security from millionaire-coddling government haters. Some even suspect it might be a backdoor strategy for reintroducing benefit cuts later.

Social Security currently keeps 20 million people out of poverty. Why tinker with it? These new poverty statistics offer would-be benefit cutting Dems the perfect out.

When more than 15% of Americans over 65 live in poverty and skyrocketing health care costs are likely to impoverish even more of them, we can’t afford to cut any of theie financial lifelines.

Sucker Punched Again

Republicans actually managed to run to the left of Dems in 2010 by positioning themselves as Medicare’s defenders. Now observers are shocked – shocked! – that they’re is running to the left of the Democrats on Social Security too. They’re claiming that the payroll tax ‘holiday’ would “cut contributions” to the program. (It would, but Democrats plan to replace them out of general revenues).They’re also claiming the plan would “drive (Social Security’s) Trust Fund into the red.” (It wouldn’t – but by mingling the trust fund with general revenues, the ‘holiday’ weakens Social Security’s fiscal firewall and endangers its political security.)

So let’s see: That means that Democrats who -

  • appointed and/or served on a Deficit Commission that tried to cut Social Security, and
  • are on record as proposing cuts to Social Security, and who then
  • decided to provide tax relief for the middle class by cutting Social Security’s income stream when more progressive approaches were available, and who
  • promised to make up the difference from general revenue by drawing funds from general revenue, which
  • destroyed Social Security’s financial firewall for the first time in 75 years -

- are now being attacked from the left by Republicans who are positioning themselves as defenders of Social Security! Who could have seen it coming? Nobody, that’s who!

Oh, sure, this guy did. Back in January he said that if Democrats make any direct or indirect moves against Social Security, “Republicans will run a replay of their successful 2010 campaign, when they spent $71.1 million on ads claiming they were defending Medicare (a program they’ve always opposed) from Democrats.” But he’s a freakin’ genius! Nobody else could have known, right?

Doesn’t matter. Here we are. Social Security needs protecting, and elected officials need to prove they’re committed to defending a popular and successful program. Fortunately, there is a solution.

A Pledge for the 99-ized Dems

The Dems are on fire with progressive passion from the White House on down. We’re loving the new, tough, populist rhetoric: First the Teddy Roosevelt speech, now today’s fiery press conference. Great stuff. Now all the Democrats need to do is put this newfound populist spirit into action. Teddy’ Roosevelt’s commitment to economic justice and Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of Social Security are both urgently needed right now.

Polls show that Social Security cuts are enormously unpopular, even among Republicans and Tea Party members. So why not take a stand on the subject, once and for all? We propose a simple pledge which the President and all Democrats could sign, and which they could urge Republicans to sign too (they won’t, which will help them at the polls.) The pledge would go something like this:

“I, _________________, do solemnly swear that I will not support any cuts to Social Security, now or in the future; that I will refuse to vote for or sign any bill that raises the retirement age, lowers the cost of living adjustment, or decreases benefits in any other way; that I will veto any such bill that reaches my desk; that all revenues lost from Social Security due to the “payroll tax holiday” will be replaced in full; and that I will work to replace the “payroll tax holiday” with a more progressive tax break that protects the firewall around the Social Security Trust Fund.

Furthermore, I solemnly affirm that the Social Security program is a hallmark of our country’s ability to meet its promises to its citizens, one which people have paid for and deserve to receive after a lifetime of hard work. Signed proudly, this day of __________, by ____________.”

We look forward to the first signing ceremony, and trust that the Roosevelts would be proud.

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