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A TGB READER STORY: The Lessons of Asymmetry

Let's Talk About Threats to Social Security

Fifteen years of experience at this blog tells me that when I write about Social Security, readership that day drops by about one-third, sometimes more.

Of course, I have no way to prove it but I'm pretty sure that a vast majority of U.S. TGB readers, most of whom collect Social Security, would have serious challenges to face if the program's benefit was reduced.

Some people would not fill prescriptions or they might cut dosages – the poorer among us are known to do this. Others would go hungry.

The Social Security benefit is small enough but it is also the most successful social program in the history of the United States raising, according to 2017 statistics, 22 million Americans in all 50 states above the poverty line. That includes 15 million elders.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of Congress members and some presidents who have been and still are hell bent on cutting Social Security. So you of the TGB one-third who skip Social Security stories – maybe take a couple of minutes to skim this post so you'll understand the threats.

During the 2016 campaign and beyond, President Trump repeatedly said he would protect, and not cut, Social Security (and Medicare, Medicaid). Here's the compilation video from the Washington Post:

Since his election, Trump has mostly ignored Social Security and then, in his 2019 proposed Budget last March, he called for “$25 billion in cuts to Social Security over 10 years, including cuts to disability insurance” according to Vox.

The president's budget is not legally binding and Congress is free to ignore it or any parts of it whe they craft each year's budget for the country. However, it does provide Congress a sense of the chief executive's priorities, budgetary objectives and recommended spending levels.

Since Social Security was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, Congress members, especially Republicans, have been eagerly standing in line to not just cut Social Security benefits but to kill the program entirely.

The most recent is Republican Senator Joni Ernst who is up for re-election next year. She spoke at a town hall in Estherville, Iowa, about Social Security and how to “maintain” it:

The audio was poorly recorded so if you missed it, here is Ernst's salient point on Social Security (emphasis added).

”...as various parties and members of Congress, we do need to sit down behind closed doors so we’re not being scrutinized by this group or the other, and just have an open and honest conversation about what are some of the ideas that we have for maintaining Social Security in the future.”

“Closed doors.” “Not scrutinized.” “Open and honest.” All in one sentence. And in public, too. Which, I suppose, isn't too bright when you're holding secret conversations about cuts that would impoverish millions of people.

This is not imminent. Most of Congress and the president are caught up in election fever now so changes to social network programs (and most everything else that needs attending to) will not be attempted until 2021. But it behooves us to understand what could happen and what the consequences would be so we are prepared when the time comes.

All this is not to say that Social Security doesn't need some shoring up, something that has been known but Congress has ignored since 1984. Here is a quick overview from The Motley Fool which starts out saying that Social Security is in “some pretty big trouble.”

”According to the April [2019]-released Social Security Board of Trustees report, the program won't bring in enough revenue over the long term (the next 75 years) to cover outlays to beneficiaries, inclusive of cost-of-living adjustments.

“The silver lining for seniors who are dependent on Social Security as a major source of income is that the program is in no danger of disappearing or going bankrupt.

“Recurring sources of revenue, such as the payroll tax and the taxation of benefits, ensure that there will always be money to divvy out to eligible beneficiaries.

“But the bad news is that Social Security is facing an estimated funding shortfall of $13.9 trillion between 2035 and 2093. If this shortfall isn't dealt with by adding revenue, cutting expenditures, or some combination of the two, retired-worker benefits could fall by as much as 23% within the next two decades. That means Social Security's future is in our elected lawmakers' hands.”

For all the years I've been writing about attacks on Social Security benefits, there have been numerous solutions to the shortfall many of which alone or in combination would work without burdening beneficiaries.

We will discuss some of these here in the future because it is vital to increase Social Security revenues and our Congresses have let us down since the aforementioned 1984 by doing nothing in all that time.

Meanwhile, Nancy Altman is the number one expert and advocate for Social Security in the U.S. Even when, like now, Social Security is not a front-page item, she keeps us informed on the program, what officials are or should be doing about it at Forbes and other publications around the web.

Or just Google her name and click on the “news” header in the results.


I'm enraged when a politician or TV talking head describes Social Security as an "entitlement". NO! I paid for it. I paid for it from my first $1/hour summer job until I retired. Various federal administrations have raided the fund... so today it is no longer financially sturdy. That theft is conveniently forgotten and they portray us old folk as grifters. We paid for that benefit! Medicare also.

Me too, Trudi, about "entitlements." Enraged when I see or hear it. Undoubtedly because I was reading a lot of Social Security reporting for today's post, I kept bumping into that word - deliberately, I believe, from partisans who want to kill the program and reporters who are ignorant.

I would vote for the social security tax to be applied to all earned income without any cap and I'm told this would fix much of the problem. I cannot understand why some working people would not want to do this. It's sort of a working person's brotherhood where those of us that have done well or better than others should count our blessings and be willing to help those that are not so fortunate knowing full well that if not for a little luck and being blessed with a strong skill set, intelligence, and being raised to have a strong work ethic, they might have been on the lower economic side of the bell curve and be appreciating the SS check. Some might say they don't want to contribute or contribute more because if they do the government will just spend it--there is some truth to this but at least they are honoring their IOU's, so far. It's all very crazy and scary for the elders of the future or some of us that might still be around in 2035 (God willing). Okay, I'm off the soapbox. Cheers, John

Agreed. No earned income cap and saving SS needs to be an issue for voters.

Do the Republicans want to take us back to the time of sending poverty-stricken elders to 'poor farms'? Very few are alive to remember that time, but I am and it was hell on earth. Without family to care for them the impoverished were doomed to end their golden years in such places. Widows unable to pay their property taxes were having their houses repossessed and sold to greedy men with some money and losing their homes.

To answer my question - Of course they do.

At no time in my long working life did I ever complain about having money taken out of my paycheck for Medicare/disability. And, I asked for nothing more in return other than the money I paid into the system would be there when I needed it. I paid my taxes and, as an employer, I contributed my fair share of Social Security taxes. How dare they want to cut my benefits, my money. With all the wasteful spending our government does ($11million to refuel Air Force planes at an airport near a TRUMP golf resort in Scotland) without congressional oversight is heartless if not criminal.

...and just so voters won't know what we're going to do, let us (those in Congress) have secret talks.....

Keep writing, Ronni. I am reading—and voting.

Supporting groups like AARP and keeping up with what Nancy Altman says, and of course take the cap off contributions, but it's a talking point of the Republican Party, they want to get rid of it, however it is wonderful to have the income after working and paying in all those years, and Medicare is another wonderful option.

Yes, they do, Darlene, then they won't "see inconvenient" older people in need and feel discomfort. I don't remember those times of banishment, but discouraging that the narrative has been in place for at least that long. Having FDR was a blessing for this country, but obviously didn't cause some folks to develop compassion, understanding, etc. within themselves.

Why do some people seem apprehensive or wary of their softer, warm feelings when it takes nothing from their lives?

Perhaps one of your readers can clarify this . . . When Al Gore was running for POTUS he often mentioned not opening the "lock box " - referingi to the SS Reserves fund. During the W era the box was opened and the SS Reserves were borrowed and placed in the general fund. Assuming those $$ were then spent. Never a mention of paying the funds back into SS. I have also heard that Congress can now not even pay the interest on the loan. Anyone - can you clarify?

It boggles my mind when people ignore a discussion about reducing or even ending social security. I do not collect SS as I am a retired state employee but I have many friends and neighbors who are dependent upon it for a good portion and in too many cases - all of their income. My children will depend upon it for their retirement. They pay a considerable amount of money monthly into SS. I have friends who are still working who pay into SS monthly. To end it would be a theft of their payments. It makes me wonder about those who do not pay attention and especially about politicians who want to end SS. It is not an entitlement when one pays into SS. Wake up folks before your are robbed blind by greedy politicians. Who is going to support you after you have to stop working?

Any day now I expect to hear that Pres. Sharpie is going to take money from SS to pay for his damned wall.

I just finished reading all of your postings about your mother's final days. Thank you for posting this beautiful, heartfelt thing! It brought tears to my eyes, and a deeper understanding of how things are... and how they should be... but often are not.

You are still a "young thing"... (I am 90), but it seems I am far healthier than you... It is my hope that when MY time comes, I might have the same kind of loving kindness that was there for your mother, and I certainly do wish the same for you as well.

Reading your posts every morning brings me happiness, as I am sure it does for others as well. Thank you for doing them! You are wonderful!

GREAT comments today.

I agree with all of you ... and especially about no earned income cap and saving Social Security for our children and their children by making the SS funds sacrosanct, untouchable by any President or Congress !! No more "borrowing" from OUR funds, and instant repayment on any lone(s) now outstanding!

How about insuring that ONLY individuals who paid into Social Security are eligible for benefits from Social Security. Congress should repay SSA for the money they took out from SS BENEFITS in order to have given others "entitlements'. Congress should clearly pay benefits to those that contributed and give away entitlements from OTHER sources. including SSI, SSD and whatever else they've given to from OUR investment for retirement..

Maybe readership goes down because of fear. MY heart is beating faster after reading this. And interestingly, I was thinking today that I've been in the paid workforce for 58 years -- and I'm only 72 -- and still working.

Forget poor farms or less medication or food. Many of us would be on the street or dead because we'd kill ourselves from the stress of it all. Cuts would be the "death panels" Sen. Grassley spoke about w/ ACA.

Then there's the issue of DC where I live -- we pay high taxes w/o voting representation so in this we have no say at all.

I think I'll go practice yoga breathing now.

[A bit of snark .. I can't help it: why did Ernst let her hair grow? Or was the short "do" a wig?]

As one of the ~3% who Is just a few weeks shy of reaching 70 and claiming the maximum SS benefit, I dare them to try and take it away or reduce it at some point.

But they won’t, because almost everyone in this country has an elder who depends on Social Security, at least to some extent. I cannot envision a time when it would be acceptable to thrust millions of people into sudden poverty and onto the streets. If for no other reason than their children and grandchildren would be left with the huge financial burden of caring for their elders...How many millennials do you think would be OK with that?

I’ve sacrificed a lot over the past five years to get to this point, and hopefully I won’t live long enough to see them take it away. SS is a lucrative annuity, and tax-free as a bonus. With a little luck there will be some (small) cost of living increases along the way.

So I am very interested and will be watching and appreciate any news you can send our way Ronni!

My husband and I survive on SS benefits alone as we don't have any pensions, investments, etc. We are frugal with our money and so far have been able to stay out of debt.

I in no way would want SS to end or be reduced, and I know most everyone has paid in to the system, but what about the idea of keeping the program solvent by not paying benefits to those who earn above a certain amount? I know that might sound punitive for those who have been fortunate to accumulate independent wealth, but do millionaires really need their SS check?

I also think there is a lot of waste in Medicare and it's no wonder it's in trouble. Just briefly, my mother who is 95 yrs old is in a board and care facility and has been using a hospital bed and wheelchair I purchased for her about 4 years ago. She recently was evaluated and accepted as a hospice patient due to her declining health. As soon as she was approved for hospice, the agency brought in a brand new hospital bed and wheelchair. When I asked why that was necessary at this stage of her life, I was told not to worry about it because it was being paid for my Medicare. That to me is an abuse of the system, costs all of us money, and denies assistance to someone who may really need it.

Every politician that comes into power says they are going to end the abuses of one agency or another, but I have seen very little progress in that direction. Why is that?

I have hesitated commenting on this post for a number of reasons. However Irma, who is the last person commenting before me, at the time of my comment, has broken some of the ice I was afraid to. I don't find a means test, as she suggests, to be at all unreasonable. Yes, those of us who have paid into SS via FICA taxes, deserve to receive payments we were promised when that money was taken from our paychecks. However, if I live as long as my mother. or even ten years fewer, I will have received far more in retirement than I and my employer paid in while I was working. And I'm not even going to try to estimate how much more I might receive in medical benefits than the Medicare portion of those taxes paid in, but it could be a mind-boggling amount. I mostly worked modest paying jobs in social services before retirement, and, after just 7 years of collecting Social Security, I have already come close to having received as much as I ever paid in.

And as for the idea that people who receive SSI or SSDI are somehow not entitled to those payments, and that it is taken from "our" money as I think someone was suggesting above -- I believe that both of those come from different pools, or at least SSI does. SSDI is received by people who have also paid into the system, but became disabled before official retirement age and need that money to support themselves.

And I, too, observed a great deal of Medicare payment waste during the time I was caring for my mother-in-law at the end of her life. I am very thankful for the coverage of many things by hospice, but there were also many things we were doing just fine without before they came in, and never even used. Someone paid for those and I suspect that she had, much earlier in her retirement (she was 93 at the time of her death), many times over, exhausted whatever funds she had paid into Medicare. Again, very thankful for what was provided for her care, but multiply it by the millions of people receiving similar benefits, who also may not need it all, and it gets more than a little staggering.

One problem is that we have many of the younger people continually that SS will never be there for us. As Congress constantly hears this, they will be more than happy to see the predicted result happen.
In other words young people, demand your SS & Medicare instead of crying about it not being there.

I don’t have much to add but agree with so many of the previous comments re: removing income caps, Joni Ernst’s desire to hide behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny, etc.

I am not old enough to remember the Poor Farms while they were still in operation, but was well aware of them as the then-abandoned county Poor House was a frequent haunt of ours as teenagers.

I would have a difficult time living on my Social Security benefits, as I took them at age 62, planning to continue working part-time. However, a cancer diagnosis within a coupe of months of retirement made short work of that. If not for that increasingly rare benefit - my pension - coupled with the fact that my modest house is paid for, I have no idea how I would have survived these past few years.

A note on taxation: Social Security benefits are not tax-free. The portion of your benefits that are subject to federal taxation varies with your income level.

Thirteen states also tax your Social Security benefits, I live in one of them (Nebraska).

Appreciate your continued focus on Social Security issues. I recall my mother telling me of the poor houses she recalled knowing of in her day — they were to be feared by the old folks. We certainly need to ensure this SS program continues for the generations to come. Care needs to be taken when we vote for our government representatives at all levels — what is their stance on SS?

Jackie is correct in that a portion of one’s Social Security income MAY be taxed, depending on what other income you have in a given year.

If you live in a state that does not tax Social Security, then your Social Security benefit is tax-free if your other income is not above a certain amount. With careful planning and a smallish pension, I hope to have 100% tax free income for life.

If I choose to take IRA withdrawals that would change. But that money is for emergencies only and hopefully will not need to be touched very often.

It’s all about detailed planning and keeping up with the ever-changing tax laws.

I think we are not supposed to add links. So .. do a search for Healthcare lawsuits by UVA in the Washington Post and read the article in today's (9.10.19) Post about what one institution in particular has done to cause people to lose their homes and to lose everything .. and think about what the loss of social security on top of that would be.

And having just come from the dentist where I learned of horrific expenses (not covered by insurance) I have to incur, I am looking at how to cut back on expenses for so much of what my hereditary mouth has caused! It seems we can 't win.

Ronni, I have a feeling readers avoid posts about Social Security because the subject is just too scary. Too bad! Keep posting them! We need to know, even if the news is grim.

Still, the human desire to avoid bad news is understandable. I remember how shocked I was as a young clerical worker to learn that, when you made enough money, you didn't have to pay proportionately more into Social Security after you hit a certain ceiling. Immediately this struck me as grossly unfair. I think my actual response was, "You're kidding, right?"

Years of experience and education later, it still seems wrong to me. Yep, I still don't get it. The ceiling needs to go before we talk about "cuts," especially behind closed doors.

Darlene and Simone: You are dreaming if you think modern day Republicans would ever want to pay for "poor houses" -- they are happy with people living on the street, in tents, in parked cars etc.

As for means testing SS, this is a non-starter -- the success of SS is due in large part to the fact that it is not a "welfare" program for poor people, but something everyone (almost) pays into, and therefore has broad support across income groups.

Thinking of SSI and SSDI as "not valid" parts of SS is shortsighted and sounds Republican to me. The people on those programs are invalids unable to support themselves. (I realize there is abuse in some areas, and Janice on was the fictionalized version of that.

It is obvious that the amount on which SS is collected (the ceiling) HAS to be raised, if not eliminated. This would deal with all the predicted shortfall.

Sorry for the Janice reference -- I meant Janice on , Tony's obnoxious new-age, aging hippy sister, one of the great unpleasant characters on that memorable show.
She had gotten herself on some kind of disability and bragged about it in between husbands.

I now think this site will not let me name a famous TV show named after a family who were named after female singers able to reach high notes -- it was called The Sopranos.

When a country begins to self destruct through greed, fear and lack of a sense of we all need to look out for each other and our planet, we are doomed. It is just a matter of time.

A country that no longer moves forward in a way towards unity, care, inclusiveness and fairness will fail in time.

This is when I'm glad I'm old and I feel so for the future generations.

Perhaps someday after we are all gone, those generations can turn things back to a positive direction, but it will take enormous effort and education.

They need to stop taxing Social Security benefits at the federal level and my case, at the state level. It's double taxation. Raising the cap will keep things rolling for a long time for everyone.

I processed payroll for years and when the higher earners reached the cap, many would put money that was going into SS into their retirement accounts until they maxed out of the highest level they could put into those accounts. SS is an annuity which benefits all who put into it both for those receiving benefits and those who will receive them in the future. Retirement accounts benefit only the person putting money into them with no guarantee of return.

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