The national mood is sour and it is not because Americans think that Social Security is driving the country into bankruptcy -- as many fiscal hawks in Congress and their parrots in the media would have you believe.
Congressman Paul Ryan, proudly touting his "Roadmap for America's Future," wants to convince the American people that his plan for Social Security, in which he recommends that individuals voluntarily shift up to a third of their Social Security retirement money in the stock market -- is worthy of their consideration. His plan is not only a retread of the failed George W. Bush privatization proposal, it is an incredibly patronizing attempt to convince Americans that it is a good idea to sink more money into the very stock market that almost wiped out what little wealth they had managed to save.
Last week President Obama joined this chorus by saying "all ideas are on the table" as he established a commission tasked with identifying ways to reduce federal budget deficits. With these words, the President signaled that he is willing to let commission members consider cuts to Social Security as a part of this effort. One of the first quotes on the matter from Alan Simpson, President Obama's hand-picked commission co-chair, is revealing. When asked by Bret Baier whether Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were on the table, Simpson said, "You bet. That's what the hell this is all about."
Now a new report released by the National Academy of Social Insurance (and co-authored by this author) underscores the fundamental disconnect between the public pronouncements of folks like Ryan and Simpson and the true beliefs of the American people. Dissecting the results of a national poll, the report finds that in light of the poor economy and recent stock market losses, a vast majority (88%) of Americans--95 percent of African Americans, 89 percent of Hispanics and 87 percent of whites--agree that Social Security benefits are more important than ever to ensure that people have a dependable income when they retire.
The poll finds that Americans do not agree that Social Security spending cuts should be a part of a national deficit reduction strategy. When given the choice between cutting taxes and government spending or strengthening Social Security in response to the economic crisis and large deficit, two in three Americans (66%) - including 73 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of whites - support strengthening Social Security over cutting its benefits.
And Americans are willing to pay for stronger Social Security benefits. When asked their preference between raising taxes on workers or reducing benefits, nearly three in four Americans (71%) said they prefer raising taxes to reducing benefits. It is a sign of the fundamental decency of the American people that a large majority (87%) don't mind paying Social Security taxes because the program provides security and stability to millions of retired, disabled, and widowed Americans and the children of deceased workers.
So what's driving the dark national mood? Americans are upset because many of their elected representatives are taking them for fools. In addition to ignoring the will of the American people in pursuit of their own narrow political interests, Americans know that politicians have used their hard earned taxpayer dollars, including money borrowed from the Social Security trust funds, to pay for an unnecessary war in Iraq, a war of choice in Afghanistan, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit, and lavish bailouts for pampered bankers.
Like those on Wall Street who mismanaged their books, the politicians now want average Americans to finance their bad decisions by taking a permanent pay cut in the form of reductions to their Social Security benefits. And they are expecting Americans to swallow this bitter pill at a time when more families are facing job insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and economic insecurity than any other time in our history outside of the Great Depression.
Their approach is especially galling because Americans understand that "everything" is not on the table. Who among our "fiscally responsible" budget hawks is talking about reducing the deficit by levying a financial transaction tax against the Wall Street players who took our economy to the brink of destruction? Who among them is talking about cuts to the bloated defense budget or finally closing tax loopholes and other tax advantages for wealthy corporations and individuals?
Increasingly Americans are realizing that many powerful people in Washington, DC do not understand or even care about their pain. They see those in power who are willing to cow tow to the super-entitled elite but tuck their tails between their legs when it comes to standing up for average Americans. Where are the courageous leaders who can address the nation's budget challenge without laying the bulk of the pain on hardworking Americans whose tax contributions have already been so misused? Where are those politicians who are willing to stand for economic justice?
Americans don't deserve to be sucker punched in their time of need by the very officials they have elected to serve them. We deserve better.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm based in Washington, D.C. She is a former staffer of the Social Security subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and she serves on the board of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.