Thursday 27 January Tuesday 25 January, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address when, it is widely believed among people who are supposed to know these things, he will discuss the future of Social Security.
This is distressing because announcements in this annual speech carry particular weight and in recent months the president has made statements indicating he is willing to consider some form of cuts to the program.
For the past week, I've been struggling to write a story about why this is a disaster for elders – current and future - but without much success. The problem is, mainly, that I have too much information I can't seem to distill well.
Enter Bernie Sanders. You remember the independent senator from Vermont, don't you? The guy who for nearly nine hours in December filibustered the bill that would (and unfortunately, did) extend the tax cuts for the rich?
Now Senator Sanders has delivered a two-page letter to the president strongly urging him to resist cuts to Social Security. The letter is so good and so thorough that I'm going to let the senator do the talking for me by reproducing that letter, dated 11 January 2011.
Dear Mr. President:
There have been worrisome reports that you are considering supporting tax cuts in Social Security. I hope that information is wrong, and that you will stand bby your campaign promises to strengthen Social Security, making sure that it remains strong and vibrant and able to pay out full benefits for our children and grandchildren.
As you well know, despite rhetoric from Republicans and those on Wall Street, Social Security is not in financial crisis. The Social Security Trust Fund today has a $2.6 trillion surplus that is projected to grow to over $4 trillion by the year 2023.
Social Security can pay out every nickel owed to every eligible American for at least the next 26 years. After that, if Congress does not act (which I strongly believe it must), Social Security will be able to pay out at last 75 percent of eligible benefits.
Further, Social Security has not contributed anything to our national debt. Social Security is 100 percent funded through payroll tax contributions coming from workers and employers and, up until last year, it has received no funding from the federal Treasury.
Mr. President, although the American people now take Social Security for granted, we should never underestimate the incredibly positive impact that Social Security has had on our country.
Since it's inception over 75 years ago, through good economic times and bad, Social Security has paid out every penny owed to every eligible beneficiary with minimal administrative costs. What an extraordinary accomplishment!
During that period Social Security has succeeded in keeping millions of senior citizens, widows, orphans, and persons with disabilities out of poverty. Before Social Security existed, about half of America's senior citizens lived in poverty. Today, less than 10 percent live in poverty.
More than 52 million Americans now receive Social Security benefits. I would contracts that record to the situation we recently saw on Wall Street when millions of Americans lost significant amounts of their retirement savings because of the collapse of the stock market.
But, I do not have to tell you all this, Mr. President, because that is very much the same message you conveyed to the American people during your presidential campaign of 2008. Here are some of the excellent statements you made during the campaign:
• “Social Security is not in crisis; it is a fundamentally sound system, but it does have a problem long term...The best idea is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, potentially exempting middle-class folks, but making sure that the wealthy are paying more of their fair share.” - Senator Barack Obama, October 30, 2007
• “The alternatives, like raising the retirement age, or cutting benefits, or raising the payroll tax on everybody, including people making less than $97,000 a year [now $106,800 a year] – those are not good policy options.” - Senator Barack Obama, April 16, 2008
• “I believe that cutting [Social Security] benefits is not the right answer; and that raising the retirement age is not the best option.” - Senator Barack Obama, November 11, 2007
And even more recently, as president, you made a very strong statement on this issue, according to an October 14, 2010 Reuters article: “President Barack Obama said...he favored raising more revenue for Social Security to prolong the solvency of the U.S. retirement fund, rather than just cutting benefits or making people work longer...
“'I do think that the best way to do it would be to look at the fact that right now, you only pay Social Security taxes to about $106,800, and after that you don't pay any Social Security tax,' President Obama said. 'That could be modified or changed in a way that would help extend the solvency of Social Security.'”
Mr. President, as I'm sure you are aware, our Republican colleagues have long opposed Social Security not because it hasn't worked, but because of ideological reasons.
Despite its extraordinary success, they simply believe that government should not be involved in providing retirement benefits to seniors, or supporting the disabled, or widows and orphans. They would prefer Wall Street and the private sector do that.
But that has not been your position and that is not the promise you made to the American people. That is not why you were elected president. Further, that is not what the vast majority of the American people want to see happen.
All of us want to work in a bi-partisan manner when we can, but needlessly cutting Social Security benefits when that has nothing to do with our deficit situation, is not good public policy or what is good for our country.
I urge you to once again make it clear to the American people that under your watch we will not cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age or privatize this critical program.
Social Security is a promise that we cannot and must not break.
United States Senator
I would add only that it's not just that Republicans prefer Wall Street and the private sector to be involved in “providing retirement benefits to seniors, or supporting the disabled, or widows and orphans.”
They want to get their grubby hands on those billions of dollars workers pay every year, collect millions in fees annually and if they lose it all in another financial meltdown – as will happen again one day – so what. They will survive magnificently as they have this time.
There are five days until the State of the Union address. The speech is still being written and here is what I ask you to please do: Email the president. You can do that here.
Urge him to lay off cuts to Social Security (well, you could word it more politely than that) and point him to Senator Sanders' letter using this URL: http://sanders.senate.gov/graphics/soc_sec_ltr.pdf
Get your husband or wife to write the president too. And your friends and relatives. Your blog readers. You might mention, as I did, that without Social Security, you'd be living in a refrigerator box under a bridge – or whatever your version of that is.
Say whatever it takes to bring home the point that you don't want your children and grandchildren to be eating cat food when they get old.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmerman: Stranger Danger