11/22/2010 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Making Deficit Decisions in the Dark

Earlier this month, the co-chairs of the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released draft recommendations on how to bring down the nation's deficit. At the beginning of December, the Commission is set to unveil a final set of recommendations. The proposal will require the support of 14 of 18 Commission members if it is to move on to a Congressional vote. Though in draft form and unlikely to gain full support of the Commission, the co-chairs' sneak-release prompts serious questions on our nation's fiscal choices and the sacrifices Americans are able to bear.

At the outset, the co-chairs' recommendations outline several values, the first of which states: We have a patriotic duty to come together on a plan that will make America better off tomorrow than it is today. There is little, however, in the co-chairs' plan that suggests most Americans will be made "better off" were these supposed solutions adopted. Some of the more concerning recommendations include: raising the retirement age for Social Security; revising the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for Social Security to scale back benefits bit by bit; capping funds for critical meals, energy and other services that help families make ends meet; and increasing out-of-pocket health care costs for elders.

What's missing entirely from the co-chair's initial proposal is specificity as to how these recommendations and others will affect the economic security of American families. The co-chairs' proposal clearly outlines its effect on the bottom line - GDP, spending, revenues and so on. But what will an adjustment to the COLA mean for a woman living on the average Social Security payment of $12,500 a year? How will caps in discretionary spending affect a family living paycheck to paycheck for whom energy assistance pays the heating bill? Who, among elders with already stretched budgets, can afford more expensive health care premiums?

Earlier this fall, over 1,050 national and state organizations called on the Fiscal Commission to make distributional analyses on the impact of its proposals available to the public at large. The letter states, "Understanding and making transparent how different paths would affect different income groups is an essential means of determining fairness in who bears the burdens of changes in spending and tax policy."

Equally essential to determining the fairness of any deficit reduction plan is a clear grasp of the economic challenges facing today's working and retired Americans. This fall, WOW unveiled the findings of public opinion research on Americans' attitudes towards their own economic security and a range of policies and programs that build family economic stability. The data show that 74% of Americans would rate their family's economic security as fair or poor. Nearly four in ten worry frequently about their family income being enough to meet basic expenses.

Indeed, we have a patriotic duty to make America better - a duty that involves ensuring that Americans of all ages live with economic security. In today's economy, this will involve tough choices. Our leaders have a responsibility to shed light on their proposals and illustrate what those tough choices will mean for working and retired Americans. Ultimately, seeing this patriotic duty through means making deficit reduction decisions that do no harm to those many Americans who fall short of economic security.

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