The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that close to 90 percent of people 65 and older get at least some of their family income from Social Security. For more than half of the elderly, it provides the majority of their income. For many, it is the only income they have.
The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits, since it is prohibited from borrowing and must pay all benefits out of dedicated tax revenues and savings in its trust funds.”
Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t have been clearer about the crucial role of the payroll taxes used to finance Social Security. They gave the beneficiaries a “legal, moral and political right” to collect their benefits, he said. “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.”
There has always been feverish opposition on the right to Social Security. What is happening now, in a period of deficit hysteria, is that this crucial retirement program is being dishonestly lumped together with Medicare as an entitlement program that is driving federal deficits. Medicare costs are a serious problem, but that’s because of the nightmarish expansion of health care costs in general.
Beyond Medicare, the major drivers of the deficits are not talked about so much by the fat cats and demagogues because they were either responsible for them, or are reaping gargantuan benefits from them, or both. The country is drowning in a sea of debt because of the obscene Bush tax cuts for the rich, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have never been paid for and the Great Recession.
Mugging the nation’s grandparents by depriving them of some of their modest, hard-earned Social Security retirement benefits is hardly an answer to the nation’s ills. And, believe me, those benefits are modest. The average benefit is just $14,000 a year, which is less than the minimum wage would pay. With employer-provided pensions going the way of the typewriter and pay telephones, the income from Social Security is becoming more precious by the day.
“If we didn’t have Social Security, we’d have to invent it right now,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “It’s perfectly suited to the terrible times we’re going through. Hardly anyone has pensions anymore. People’s private savings have taken a huge hit, and home prices have been hit hard. So the private savings that so many seniors and soon-to-be seniors have counted on have just been wiped out.
“Social Security is still there, and it’s still paying out retirement benefits indexed to wages. It’s the one part of the retirement stool that is working.”