fresh voices from the front lines of change







Some surprising new polling results underscore the unpopularity – and long-term destructiveness – of Congress’ ongoing attacks on the Social Security system.

The new Republican Congress is expected to force additional office closures and impose additional cuts on the Social Security Administration’s budget, even as a poll released this week by Social Security Works shows that the public overwhelmingly opposes the flimsy rationale for those cuts.

We’re told that automation can pick up the slack as more offices are shuttered and more workers are laid off. But the polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly prefer human assistance to the Internet or email, which means they won’t be happy with the change.

There are good reasons for their unhappiness. As an official with the American Federation of Government Employees pointed out in an interview on The Zero Hour radio program earlier this year, Social Security staffers are trained to understand the program. People who apply through the Internet may miss out on benefits for which they are eligible, and could remain unaware of other options that might work better for them.

The Social Security Works poll, conducted this week by Public Policy Polling, showed that an overwhelming 86 percent of Americans want as many or more local field offices open in the future as are available today. That makes sense, especially since the number of people using these offices will climb as Baby Boomers retire.

The survey also shows that most people prefer to talk to a human being, either by phone or in person, when interacting with the Social Security system. Only 11 percent want to use the Internet or email to request a new Social Security card, for example. Unfortunately, an unpublicized Social Security Administration plan would force them to do exactly that – and upcoming GOP cuts could accelerate that effort.

In an exclusive look at some of the raw polling data, a surprising fact came to light: Voters under 30 dislike the idea of using Web-based services much more than older voters do. Only 3 percent would prefer to order new Social Security cards via Internet or email, far less than the 11 percent figure for voters overall. Only 4 percent want to apply for retirement benefits via the Internet or email, as opposed to 13 percent overall.

That undermines a key argument for this downsizing scheme: that young people are more Internet-savvy, so there will be less need for human assistance in the future. (Come to think of it, maybe they prefer human assistance because they’re more Internet-savvy.)

But if young people don’t want a downsized and automated Social Security Administration, who does? The answer: Republicans.

Not Republican voters – they actually dislike the idea as much or more as voters do overall, according to the raw data. But Republicans in Congress are very, very excited about the idea. That’s why they keep cutting the White House’s budget requests for the Social Security Administration, despite the fact that the SSA’s budget is paid out of the program’s own funds and does not contribute to the federal deficit.

Now why would they want to do that?

It undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that Republicans have a deep-seated, ideologically-rooted hostility to the concept of government itself. Social Security is enormously popular across all political and party lines, and its administrative costs are a fraction of the private sector’s. It’s a living rebuke to the notion that the free market is always more efficient.

There’s another likely reason why Congressional Republicans want to gut Social Security: They haven’t given up on their failed attempt to privatize it back in 2005. That was a political debacle. Voters hated the idea, with good reason. It would have placed Social Security benefits – which for most people are critical to whatever retirement security they have left – in a perilous position. It would also have left the public at Wall Street’s mercy — for income security, good service, and fraud-free financial management.

Wonder how that would’ve worked out.

But Congressional Republicans haven’t given up on privatization. Their ideology hasn’t changed, after all, and there are billions of dollars to be made gutting Social Security.

If you can’t sell an idea on its merits, the next best approach is to slowly undermine the status quo. We’ve seen how this privatization game works: First, slowly starve a popular program of the funds it needs to operate efficiently and effectively. Then tell everybody the resulting problems and delays are proof that “government doesn’t work.” Finally, privatize it and watch the profits roll in at the expense of the public good.

Is that what the Republicans are up to with the SSA’s budget? You can bet your future on it.

(Note: The Zero Hour is sponsored by Social Security Works.)

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