Retirees must keep a close eye on the bi-partisan commission President Obama recently created to lower the federal budget deficit. Many in Washington are urging the panel to recommend changes in Social Security as a way to reduce the debt.
If the commission takes a thorough and honest look at Social Security, it will see one of our nation's greatest success stories. Social Security has helped generations of retirees stay out of poverty.
Policymakers need to understand that our jobs crisis is also a retirement crisis, as too many men and women now find themselves without a pension or retiree health care. The collapse of housing values and the stock market plunge have combined to gut the retirement savings of Americans of all ages. For over 25 percent of retirees, Social Security is their only source of income. With an average monthly benefit of only $1,164, this is a tenuous lifeline for many seniors.
This commission needs to be honest about the tax and spending choices that led to these large deficits. For example, since 1983, American workers have paid enough Social Security payroll taxes to accumulate a $2.5 trillion surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund. But between 2001 and 2006, Washington gave away $2.48 trillion in tax cuts.
Retirees worry about our children and grandchildren in these difficult times. The Congressional Budget Office says that Social Security can make its payments in full through 2043. So how do we help future retirees? First, raise the cap on Social Security payroll taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Second, put people back to work in good jobs. The more Americans that have good, middle-class jobs, the more that will retire with security and stability.
I am concerned about the objectivity of commission and its co-chair Alan K. Simpson. As a Senator, Simpson referred to older Americans as "greedy geezers" and wanted to lower Social Security benefits by changing the statistical formula used to calculate Cost-of-Living Adjustments.
Moreover, the six panel members named by the House Republican leadership - Senators Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo, and Judd Gregg and Representatives Dave Camp, Jeb Hensarling, and Paul Ryan - combine to average a 6.5 percent lifetime rating on the Alliance for Retired Americans scorecard of key congressional votes on Social Security, Medicare, and other issues affecting retirement security.
Throughout the health care debate, seniors faced a steady barrage of lies and scare tactics from opponents of reform. Now, in an election year in which Social Security will be prominent in the public debate, it will be more important than ever for retirees to be politically savvy. With so much misinformation on the television and the internet, we must be able to separate fact from fiction.
Seniors do not want these budget deficits to be the legacy we leave behind to our children and grandchildren. Working together, we can help build a better life for current and future retirees.
Barbara J. Easterling is President of the 4 million-member Alliance for Retired Americans. She is the former Secretary-Treasurer of the Communications Workers of America.