Eighty-two years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law. The program has most emphatically stood the test of time. Today, our nation’s Social Security system provides nearly every American with old age, life, and disability insurance. These critical protections allow middle and working class people to retire with freedom and dignity, and provide vital support for people facing disability or the death of a breadwinner.
Social Security has never been more essential than it is today. Traditional defined benefit pensions are increasingly rare, especially for younger Americans. That means that for future generations of retirees, Social Security will be the only guaranteed retirement income that they can never outlive. Already, one-third of elderly beneficiaries rely on Social Security for all or nearly all of their income. That number will be higher for their children and grandchildren.
The problem with relying solely on Social Security? Benefits are too low to allow America’s families to retire and face disability or the death of a breadwinner without drastic cuts in their standards of living. Social Security benefits are modest by virtually any measure. Average benefits are only $16,000 a year.
Though the Social Security benefits are too low, they are still a major improvement over the time before Social Security. Prior to its enactment, people, as they aged, had no resources at all and were forced to move in with adult children or condemned to live in squalid poorhouses. Surviving parents often had no choice but to give up their children when spouses died prematurely; working families were left destitute when workers became disabled or died. Americans deserved better, and the country responded. It is time to respond further. Though Social Security has provided us with greater economic security, it can do more.
When FDR signed the Social Security Act of 1935, he referred to the new law as “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” Past generations have heeded that call — including by adding survivor and disability benefits to Social Security and by instituting cost of living increases so that benefits don’t erode over time. Now it’s our generation’s turn. It should be a no-brainer for us to expand Social Security benefits, making them more generous so that no one has to retire into poverty or face destitution as the result of disability or the death of a loved one.
But sadly, too many politicians want to move in the opposite direction by cutting Social Security’s modest benefits. In the last few years, the split along partisan lines has become increasingly clear. Democrats have united around expanding, not cutting, Social Security. Republicans continue to support cuts, though they never admit to it. Instead, they say that we need to cut Social Security to “save” it, because we “can’t afford” its modest benefits.
That is utterly false. We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Cutting or expanding Social Security is entirely a question of values, not affordability. Republican politicians might not like the idea of their millionaire and billionaire campaign donors paying into the program at the same rate as everyone else, but voters of all political affiliations believe that is fair. During last year’s presidential primary, opposition to Social Security cuts was the only issue that united Ted Cruz supporters, Bernie Sanders supporters, and everyone in between.
Donald Trump recognized this opening, and broke from the rest of his Party by running on a promise not to cut Social Security. But this pledge was never very believable for those who looked beneath his campaign rhetoric, given his long past history of support for cutting and privatizing Social Security.
Sure enough, after only a few months in office, Trump broke his promise by releasing a budget proposal that included cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI.) Despite his administration’s cynical attempts to divide and conquer by claiming that SSDI isn’t “core” Social Security, the American people won’t be fooled. Social Security is one intertwined program. A threat to any part of it is a threat to all of it.
Republicans in Congress and the White House have also been attacking Social Security through a sneaky backdoor route. Historically, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been well known for efficient, quality service. But since the GOP took control of the House in 2010, they’ve been slashing the agency’s budget — despite the fact that the American people pay for SSA services with their Social Security contributions.
As a result, SSA has been forced to shutter field offices, lay off staff, and reduce hours at remaining offices. Wait times at the offices and the agency’s 1-800 number have increased, and the backlog for disability benefits keeps growing. This cruel and unnecessary starvation of SSA has made it more difficult for Americans, especially those in rural areas, to access their earned benefits.
On Social Security’s 82nd birthday, the program is at a crossroads. It is extremely successful and more important than ever, but it is also under threat from politicians who reject the idea that government can be a force for good in people’s lives. In next year’s midterm elections, the American people will face a choice, one that will have a major impact on Social Security’s future.
If Republicans remain in power, and especially if they gain more seats in the Senate, they will feel emboldened to continue chipping away at Social Security, eroding the system through a thousand tiny cuts. But if Democrats are smart and run boldly and clearly on a strong platform of expanding Social Security benefits and adequately funding the Social Security Administration, they can show the American people that they stand with us. Winning on a platform of expanding Social Security would send a clear message to Washington: Hands off Social Security — except to make it better.