This is an opinion piece by Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works.
On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law. In the 82 years since, Social Security has transformed this nation and become among the most successful programs in history.
In the 1930s, over half of older Americans lived in poverty. Those who were not able to fall back on family support were forced to reside in poorhouses, dismal institutions where they were treated like prisoners. Today, Social Security lifts over 21 million Americans out of poverty, and the senior poverty rate has fallen to ten percent.
Social Security provides stability, security, and freedom to Americans during old age because it is a guaranteed benefit that you can never outlive. Regardless of if a person's retirement lasts for five years or thirty-five, their monthly checks will always be there.
But Social Security isn't just for seniors. It also protects working families in the event of disability or after the loss of a breadwinner. In fact, Social Security is our nation's largest children's program. Over six million children either receive benefits directly or live in a household with a beneficiary. When workers contribute to Social Security with every paycheck, they are acquiring three different types of insurance protections for themselves and their families: Old age, disability, and survivor's insurance.
We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world at the wealthiest moment in our history. Protecting and expanding Social Security is a question of values, not affordability.
These benefits make an enormous difference in the lives of over 60 million beneficiaries. They are, however, extremely modest. Average benefits are less than $16,000 a year. That's quite low by global standards, and particularly sobering number when you consider that one-third of beneficiaries rely on Social Security for all or nearly all of their income.
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That number is likely to be even higher for future generations of retirees. Traditional pensions are becoming increasingly rare. 401(k)s, which were supposed to replace pensions, are failing working and middle class families. The median retirement account balance is only $3,000 – and for near retirement households, it's only $14,500.
The good news is that there is a solution to our looming retirement income crisis, one that President Roosevelt spelled out at Social Security's inception 82 years ago. As he signed the bill into law, FDR said "This law represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means completed."
Subsequent generations heeded FDR's words by improving and expanding Social Security. Disability benefits were added in 1954 and cost of living increases were added in 1977 to ensure that benefits do not erode over time.
Now, it is our generation's turn to take up the mantle by expanding Social Security's benefits to ensure that today's and tomorrow's retirees can live and retire with dignity.
Politicians need to listen to the American people, who overwhelmingly support protecting and expanding Social Security
It won't be an easy fight. Wall Street billionaires have opposed Social Security for decades, and they can't keep their greed out of our earned benefits. They've spent millions on a campaign to undermine public confidence in the program and push the claim that we can't afford to maintain, let alone expand, Social Security benefits. Their con is simply to convince people they are going to receive nothing, so that they will accept less than they are owed.
That is a lie. We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world at the wealthiest moment in our history. Protecting and expanding Social Security is a question of values, not affordability.
Currently, those making over $127,000 (only five percent of all workers) do not contribute to Social Security on any of their income above that amount. Those few Americans lucky enough to make a million dollars a year stop paying into Social Security in February. We could also tax the billions of dollars in unearned income among the richest Americans to expand Social Security. Or we could follow the lead of Thomas Paine who wrote in 1797 that a fair way to fund a system like Social Security was with a dedicated estate tax. There are plenty of options for getting the money to protect and expand Social Security. We just need the political will to make it happen.
In other words, politicians need to listen to the American people, who overwhelmingly support protecting and expanding Social Security. Increasingly, the Democratic Party has done just that. The 2016 Democratic platform endorsed Social Security expansion, and several different expansion bills have been introduced in Congress. Over 85 percent of the Democrats in the House and Senate have endorsed expanding Social Security.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump broke with party orthodoxy by running on no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. This was smart political strategy, given that Republican voters (in contrast to Republican politicians) overwhelmingly oppose Social Security cuts just like Democrats and Independents do. Unfortunately, like so many of Trump's campaign promises, this one has fallen by the wayside now that he's in office.
If Democrats are smart, they will hold Trump accountable for that broken promise in 2018 by running hard on protecting and expanding Social Security. Voters know what they want Social Security's future to look like. Now it's time for them to elect politicians who will carry out their vision.