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It’s Up to All of Us to Protect Social Security

“One thing I know. Social Security is so firmly embedded in the American psychology today that no politician, no political group could possibly destroy this Act and still maintain our democratic system. It is safe forever, and for the everlasting benefit of the people of the United States.” —Frances Perkins, on the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Social Security Act (from the book, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience)

(Image: Rebuild the Dream)Good thing Frances Perkins is not hearing the disinformation from Washington and many in the media today claiming Social Security is going broke and that there is a “consensus” that cuts are needed in Social Security to reduce the federal deficit.

Or the disgraceful assertion that people who receive Social Security, or other public assistance, are “takers” who, as Mitt Romney said in the now infamous tape of a private meeting with donors last May, do not “take personal responsibility or care for their lives.”

Social Security may be the most enduring, successful, and popular reform in U.S. history. But, in the 77 years since its inception, it has never faced as grave a threat as it does today.

The stakes could not be higher.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Social Security.

Enacted at the height of the Great Depression, at a time only 15 percent of those who still had jobs also had private pension plans, Social Security literally meant survival for millions of retirees. That was the case even with concessions made in the original law to pass conservative opposition which resulted in exclusion of benefits for those most impoverished, such as agricultural and domestic workers, predominantly women and minorities, (all since repaired), and the failure to include a national health plan.

Nurses, as CNA President Emeritus Kay McVay reminds us, were not eligible for Social Security until the 1950s, as they were categorized as independent contractors, and only through the effort of CNA and other nurse unions did nurses begin to win employer-paid pensions through collective bargaining.

Today, as the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare explains, still barely half of all workers have access to retirement plans on the job, and many of those are substandard. Without Social Security, they note, “over half of all older Americans would fall into poverty… Social Security does exactly what it was designed to do – it gives people a secure, basic income for as long as they live.”

But, sadly, no matter who wins the November 6 election, there is trouble afoot.

If Gov. Romney wins, he has already made trillions of dollars in cuts in federal programs a top priority, and offered broad hints of, at minimum, slashing Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has gone farther, sponsoring a budget plan that proposed privatizing Social Security.

The signals from President Obama are not reassuring, especially after a widely noticed statement in the first debate that he and Romney had no real differences on Social Security. Subsequently, his campaign declared “President Obama will never privatize Social Security or undermine retirement security for middle-class Americans.”

Yet, during the bitter legislative fights over the debt ceiling and federal deficit, the President told Republican legislators that he was open to cuts. And a top aide, David Axelrod, has told reporters that discussion of the future of Social Security should wait until after the election.

What’s really going on here is a concerted campaign by the same banksters on Wall Street who created the current economic crisis who want to get their hands on everyone’s retirement savings. They are assisted by politicians in both parties they heavily influence, and those in the media who have helped them spin what Columbia Journalism Review blogger Trudy Lieberman calls “a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.”

Here’s the real story of Social Security today:

1) It is not an “entitlement” for people ripping off taxpayers. Workers have earned their Social Security benefits through payroll deductions throughout their working years.

2) Social Security is especially critical for women who have historically earned less than men and spent more time out of the workforce thus building less of an income base that determines the amount of benefits. Women are also less likely to have employer-paid pensions or other savings, and typically live longer than men.

3) It is fully funded through the Social Security Trust Fund; payments do not add a dime to the deficit.

4) It is not going broke. The Trust Fund has a current surplus of $2.6 trillion, an amount expected to reach $3.7 trillion in 2022.

5) When the surplus erodes through the aging of Baby Boomers, by 2033, incoming payroll tax revenues will still enable recipients to be paid more than 75 percent of promised benefits.

6) The Trust Fund can be strengthened, but not by any of the punitive proposals floated by those who would undermine or gut Social Security. The simplest step – raise the income ceiling on payroll taxes, meaning applying the payroll tax to earnings above the current limit of $110,000,  a position then-Senator Obama endorsed. It would be further strengthened by putting people back to work, adding to the system with more payroll taxes on people earning a living.

Today, some 54 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, the majority of them retired workers and their dependents, but also people on disability, and families of deceased workers for whom Social Security is an essential form of life insurance.

After the election dust settles, the deficit hawks, Republicans and Democrats alike, are almost certain to swoop in on Social Security – as proposed by the chairs of the Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform praised by Romney and Obama alike this campaign season.

Draconian proposals, such as slashing the amount of benefits, raising the retirement age forcing people to work more years, which those with physically demanding jobs like nurses are often unable to do, or handing it over to Wall Street through privatization, would devastate tens of millions of current seniors and future retirees for whom Social Security remains a lifeline, often the only lifeline.

The stakes could not be higher. It will be up to all of us to save this crown jewel of American democracy.