In his stirring second inaugural address, President Barack Obama demonstrated that he understands what Social Security means to the American people. In saying, "[W]e reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future," he showed he understands that Social Security is not grandparents robbing their grandchildren, as so many in Washington assert. Rather, Social Security is a system which benefits grandparents, grandchildren and the generation in between. It is the largest source of income of grandparents caring for grandchildren. Indeed, it is the largest children's program, thanks to its protection of the families of workers who have become disabled or died.
More fundamentally, the president and the American people understand, though perhaps some in Washington do not, that the middle class thrives when their families thrive -- grandparents and grandchildren, not just one or the other. That is why the American people are so supportive of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and are warming to the new protections ushered in by the Affordable Care Act.
President Obama won in 2008 and 2012 because he made clear that he understands the values of the American people. He understands that we believe in individual initiative but also shared responsibility. He understands that we are not just a collection of red states and blue states, rather we are the United States.
Social Security is so popular in part because it reflects these very values. It rewards hard work and individual responsibility. The harder one works and the more one contributes, the higher one's benefits. Like all insurance, though, it pools risk across the working population, so that if a worker's wages are lost because he or she dies prematurely leaving small children, becomes seriously and permanently disabled, or chooses to retire after a lifetime of work, that worker draws from the pooled resources to which everyone has contributed.
As President Obama stated,
We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness... The commitments we make to each other -- through Medicare, and Medicaid and Social Security -- these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Like the president, the American people understand that Social Security is a benefit that they have earned through hard work. It is conservatively and prudently managed. It does not and cannot pay a penny of benefits unless it has the income to cover every penny of those benefits. And that income cannot come from borrowing. As a consequence, Social Security does not and cannot add a penny to the nation's deficit or debt. It had no place in the recent fiscal showdowns and no place in the looming fiscal showdowns.
Rather than a problem, the American people recognize that Social Security is a solution to the looming retirement income crisis.
Social Security's manageable shortfall, still decades away, should be addressed. But solvency is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end, in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is "to use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life -- in other words, social insurance." The first question should be what level of benefits should Social Security provide, given the disappearance of traditional private sector pensions, which, even at their height, covered only about half the work force, and in light of the scarcity of private sector disability insurance benefits. There is no question that a nation as rich as ours can afford much more generous benefits. The question is one of politics -- how much we choose to spend as a nation collectively for the goal of basic economic security, and how do we choose to allocate the costs.
Social Security should be discussed in the sunlight and considered by Congress and the president through an open process with full hearings and debate. It is too important to address any other way.
As co-chairs of a broad-based, diverse coalition representing a broad cross-section of the American people, we stand ready to help the president achieve legislation that strengthens Social Security. We applaud the president for his historic inaugural address, which to us represents a very important first step.
We thank President Obama for using his inaugural speech to remind the nation's politicians and the American people that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are enduring institutions, that they were built by and support the American people. These institutions do what the American people intend by protecting them when wages are lost due to retirement or the death of a parent or spouse, or when severe disability or illness strikes. And we thank him for reminding all of us that these great institutions give practical expression to widely shared values -- the responsibility to care for our parents, our children, our neighbors and ourselves; the responsibility to work hard and, in turn, to receive a fair reward; the respect for the dignity of every person. The values, these benefits we have earned for families, are worth preserving.
We urge the president to stay true to the vision he described in those words. When those in Washington seek to change Social Security as part of a deficit deal, he should make clear that he is standing with the American people, that changes to Social Security have no place in such a discussion. When those in Washington seek to engage him in closed door debates over a Social Security solvency package, he should again remain true to his words and again stand with the American people, who demonstrated their faith in him by electing him to office. When those in Washington propose pulling apart, brick by brick, the health care protections that he and prior presidents and congresses worked so hard to achieve, we want him to know that we will stand with him against such misguided efforts.
Unlike many issues politicians in Washington must confront, Social Security is one that unites the American people. Poll after poll reveals that they are united in their support for the program, in their recognition that Social Security is more important than ever, and in their opposition to changes which would weaken its important but modest protections. As long as the president stays true to the vision set forth in his inaugural address and listens to the American people, he will have a successful second term and will retain the affection and respect of the American people.