Today, August 14th, our Social Security system celebrates its 80th birthday! The system provides critical help to seniors, persons with disabilities, widows, and children who have lost a parent. Social Security is one of our nation’s greatest success stories. Its birthday is a wonderful occasion for all Americans and a particularly important day for our country’s seniors.
For 80 years, Social Security has been a cornerstone of retirement security and kept generations of Americans out of poverty. Before the introduction of Social Security, growing older often meant hardship and destitution. When Social Security began, around half of our nation’s seniors lived in poverty. Today, that rate is less than 10%. In fact, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security keeps over 20 million Americans, including more than 14 million seniors, above the poverty line. According to the Social Security Administration, in 2014, benefits were provided to 258,928 of West Virginia’s retired workers and in 2013, lifted 117,000 of our citizens aged 65 or older out of poverty. For 80 years, Social Security has allowed seniors to pay their bills, buy groceries, and retire without fear of financial ruin.
Despite its proven track record of success, the program is not without its critics in Washington. All too often, politicians will falsely blame Social Security for our budget deficit. The truth, however, is that Social Security is fully funded through the payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers. Our Social Security system doesn’t contribute a penny to the deficit. The myth that Social Security causes our deficits is a dangerous one; the more it is repeated, the more future generations have to worry.
Politicians will also sometimes try to create alarm about the program’s finances in order to call for raising the retirement age and cutting benefits. While CEO’s, Wall Street bankers, and politicians in Washington may be living longer, that’s just not true for the bottom half of income earners in America. For these workers, life expectancies have barely budged over the last 30 years. And how are workers with physically demanding jobs supposed to stay in the workplace longer? It’s just not reasonable to expect construction workers to stay on the job until they hit 70.
And what about the claim that Social Security is running out of money? Right now, the Social Security trust fund is solvent through 2033. After that, the system would be able to pay about 75% of scheduled benefits.
Thankfully, there is an easy fix. Right now, billionaires pay a lower percentage of their income in Social Security payroll taxes than middle class workers. That’s just not right. Simply requiring wealthy Americans to pay their fair share by scrapping the cap on Social Security payroll tax contributions would keep the program solvent for decades to come.
There is a retirement security crisis in America, but it’s not because Social Security benefits need to be cut. Increasingly, older Americans are finding it more difficult to pay for their basic needs. Pensions are disappearing, and increasing income inequality is making it harder for average workers to save for retirement. This shift makes protecting our Social Security system all the more important. In fact, we need to be talking about expanding Social Security benefits, not cutting them.
Leaders in Washington are starting to stand up and take notice. Several bills have already been introduced in Congress that would provide a modest increase in benefits while improving the finances of the Social Security trust fund by gradually raising the cap on Social Security payroll tax contributions.
Because we have reached the 80th birthday of Social Security, it’s time for Congress to take action to protect retirement security in America and make sure the program is around to help our children and our grandchildren. We can’t afford to be fooled by politicians looking to protect their wealthy donors by slashing benefits and raising the retirement age. What they propose wouldn’t just mean smaller benefit checks. It would mean millions of Americans being thrown into poverty. Social Security belongs to the people who have worked hard all their lives and contributed to the program, not to politicians in Washington. Now is the time to expand Social Security and shore up the program’s finances by having all Americans pay their fair share into the system.
Chair, Senior Caucus
WV Democratic Executive Committee