By Eric Kingson, Nancy Altman and John M. Cornman
Washington's policy elites just don't get Social Security. On Thursday, Congress passed the Obama-GOP compromise tax bill, replacing 15 percent of revenue dedicated to Social Security with borrowed money that will increase the federal deficit in 2011. On Dec. 3, a majority of the president's fiscal commission voted to support unprecedented cuts in Social Security benefits and changes in the structure of this program, which has served American families so well.
These actions reflect a lack of understanding about the way Social Security works and the values it promotes.
Today's debate is mostly dominated by long-time opponents of the program and federal budget experts. The former see federal deficits as opportunity to scale back Social Security's protections. The latter focus narrowly on gross savings to federal spending by cutting Social Security benefits, even though such saving can only be used to fund Social Security rather than to reduce federal deficits.
It has been left to program supporters to call attention to the program's core purposes -- providing widespread protection to all working Americans and their families against precipitous drops in income resulting from death, disability and retirement -- and to facts about the program. These facts include:
-- Large numbers of current and future retirees face potentially near-poverty retirements, contrary to the myth of the well-off elderly.
-- Social Security can meet all obligations through 2036 and, even in the absence of congressional action, could meet more than three-fourths of its ongoing obligations, thereafter;
-- A changing and volatile economy makes Social Security protections more important than ever.
Further, there has been little or no discussion of the values on which the program rests and of the importance of those values to sustaining a vibrant society.
A vibrant society depends on exchanges of knowledge, care and resources between and among generations. Older people pay taxes that support medical research, bond issues for highways and school systems, the outcomes of which will benefit younger people more than seniors. Grandparents and parents pass on knowledge, care and resources to children, who will do so themselves when they become adults.
Social Security, like almost every public program, involves an inter-generational transfer of resources, which benefit more than one age group. Adult children make Social Security contributions that mostly pay the benefits of older generations. One in 5 of the program's benefits go to children, persons with disabilities (including many wounded veterans), and to families surviving the death of a wage earner.
Far more than a benefit distribution system, Social Security is a trust based on broadly shared civic and religiously based principles -- concern for our parents, for our neighbor and for the legacy we will leave for our children and those who follow. The debate over the future of Social Security is about the choice between fostering a "you are on your own" view of the world and a "we are all on in this together" philosophy. Any changes in Social Security should reflect and strengthen the values embodied by the program, and recognize the program's powerful contribution to exchanges across generations so important to a vibrant society.
This was originally posted in the San Francisco Chronicle's Opinion Shop Section
Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University, co-directs Social Security Works (www.strengthensocialsecurity.org) with Nancy Altman, author of "The Battle for Social Security;" John M. Cornman, is former executive director of the Gerontological Society of America and of the American Anthropological Association.