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Barbara B. Kennelly Headshot

Washington Disconnect

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Angry protests aimed at Washington are an American institution as old as Congress itself but you don't have to be a political scientist to understand why the anger has elevated to a dangerous disconnect between voters and their elected representatives. Nowhere is that disconnect between Washington and Main Street America more evident than in the debate about cutting Social Security. People of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds have been rocked by the recession. Millions are unemployed, incomes are insufficient to meet the cost of living, and anxieties about the future are palpable. Many also fear Washington is much more attuned to the needs of those who helped create this fiscal mess than the average citizens who are suffering because of it.

Thankfully, throughout this crisis, Social Security has been a lifeline for millions: retirees, older workers forced out of their jobs, the disabled, and survivors already getting by with one less breadwinner. Yet, too many in Washington see our nation's mounting debt and deficit as a political opportunity. They're now using a pretense of fiscal responsibility as the rationale to cut Social Security, deepening the fissure between Washington's "haves" and the nation's "have-nots". A new nationwide poll of Americans of all ages, races, and political affiliations shows that Washington's disconnect on the issue of Social Security couldn't be larger. The poll, conducted by the UNH Survey Center for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation, gauged the public's views on Social Security and deficit reduction.

From young and old alike, attitudes about the need to separate Social Security from the deficit debate are clear and should be heeded by our nation's leaders. Only 2% of Americans polled believe Social Security is a major cause of the deficit with 77% opposing any changes in Social Security as part of a deficit reduction plan. Americans want fiscal sanity restored to Washington but they also know that Social Security didn't cause this crisis.

People of all political persuasions agree that borrowing money from Social Security for decades and then proposing benefit cuts to avoid paying that money back is not fiscal responsibility. Virtually all Americans polled (98%) believe Social Security funds belong to the people who contributed them and their beneficiaries, and a majority (71%) say Social Security is a promise made to all generations that should not be broken. Eight-four percent of Democrats and 68% of Republicans polled say Social Security should not be significantly changed to reduce the national deficit.

Yet, the President's fiscal commission continues to meet behind closed doors crafting deficit reduction plans in which Social Security benefit cuts (like raising the retirement age, price indexing and means testing) play a prominent role. Those who are doing the hard-sell on these benefit cuts tell us it's "for our children and grandchildren", as if future generations won't need the same, if not greater, level of economic security provided to current beneficiaries. Truth is, our kids understand all too well what cutting Social Security would mean for them. Sixty-seven percent of younger workers (age 35 and under) polled say the recession underscores the critical role Social Security fills for Americans and 69% say it should not be a part of this deficit debate. Why? Because the vast majority (73%) believe they'll need it in their retirement. They're absolutely right. Less than half of young workers are now are able to save for retirement. Who's surprised given the economic uncertainties young people have faced so far in their working lives?

Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt set in-motion an equitable remedy against poverty-ridden old age, an achievement that America will celebrate on August 14th. In 2010 and beyond, as we face economic challenges that continue to rock our sense of security, President Roosevelt's words have special resonance --"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today". We must not allow economic doubts to be used as a weapon against the future of America's most successful program, Social Security. It is time for Washington's leaders to reconnect with the people who are living this recession far outside the closed-door Capitol Hill rooms where six-figure incomes preside and Social Security's future is now being decided.